Germany considers a shift in Middle East policy | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 24.12.2012
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Germany considers a shift in Middle East policy

Two years ago, the fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia and ignited the Arab revolutions. German foreign policy is still adjusting to the new situation in North Africa and the Middle East.

Where the Arab revolutions are leading is one of the most difficult things for German foreign policy makers to predict. Events in the affected countries have taken a different course than was initially expected. What is clear is that, although the revolutions intended to pave the way for a new order, there's still a long and winding road ahead before this is established.

However, according to German Foreign Ministry Spokesman Andreas Peschke, Germany has found its foreign policy course. He says it supported the revolutions from the start.

"[The government] has always made it clear that human rights must be respected, even in times of great social upheaval," he wrote in a statement to DW. "New governments must offer perspectives to all social and religious groups and protect their fundamental rights."

Self-criticism on human rights

A protester opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi (Photo: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Policy regarding human rights needs more attention, say experts

However, the revolutions were also an opportunity for Germany to reassess its foreign policy prior to the upheaval. Germany cooperated with the autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt in various fields, including security policy, refugee policy and trade. Hajo Lanz, who heads the Middle East and North Africa Department of the SPD-affiliated Friedrich Ebert Foundation, says there is no need to reproach the German government for having possibly strengthened - or at least helped to maintain - the governments of both countries.

"Together with the European Union, however, we placed too much emphasis on certain objectives," he says, listing migration and security as two issues that received a lot of attention while the concerns of the people - human rights, transparency, participation, open political processes, freedom of the media - were put on the back burner. "That is something that can be held against us."

Christian Democrat Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bundestag, agrees. He says the German government is currently guided by five policy objectives: economic cooperation, migration and refugee policy, combating international terrorism, gaining acceptance for Israel as a democratic Jewish state with secure borders so that it can live in peace with its neighbors based on a two-state solution, and finally a commitment to modernization, democratization, the rule of law, and human rights.

He adds that the government was guided by four of these five goals even before the transformations - however, "interest in modernization and human rights fell by the wayside."

Benefiting from the rule of law

It is therefore now all the more important to demand human rights and the rule of law, Polenz says. With regard to Egypt, he believes this should be done in the framework of a dialog with the new government. "We are convinced that these values are also in the interests of the Egyptians and meet the protesters' demands for dignity."

He points to the field of tourism as an example of the importance of the government itself taking an interest in the rule of law. Visitor numbers will only pick up again if security is restored in the country, says Polenz, adding that "that in turn also depends on other domestic political factors."

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires a weapon (Photo: Narciso Contreras/AP/dapd)

Germany should consider the effects of arming the Syrian opposition, says Lanz

Accordingly, the German government expects that Egypt will become a representative democracy in the broadest sense. "Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, it will be crucial for the political future of the country that all the social and religious groups feel protected and respected by the new constitution," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Peschke.

The Syrian knot

By contrast, Syria poses a different set of challenges for German foreign policy. Despite ongoing violence, Hajo Lanz believes that intervention there is not advisable. Restraint, he says, is appropriate, given the complex international alliances involved, although he suggests it would be wise to support the opposition alliance established several weeks ago as much as possible. He adds that Germany must also consider arming the opposition: "We need to consider to what extent this will curb the regime's constant military attack, which could almost be called a genocide."

The German government has recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Germany also has concrete expectations of this coalition. Berlin has made clear that it expects the coalition's platform to represent all Syrians, including Christians, Kurds and Alawites, says Peschke. "We also expect the coalition to exert its influence to ensure that there are no acts of violence against civilians or human rights violations."

New signal to Israel

Angela Merkel and Benjamin Netanjahu (photo: Oliver Lang/dapd)

Berlin's signals to the Israelis and Palestinians are nuanced, but clear

Germany also faces challenges when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With its decision not to oppose the Palestinians' motion for non-state membership of the UN, but rather to abstain from the vote, Germany sent a clear signal to Israel. Ruprecht Polenz says that Germany acted as it did because, in the resolution text, the Palestinians largely adhered to the premises set out by the Middle East Quartet. In particular, they agreed to recognize the state of Israel within the borders of 1967. In this respect, says Polenz, the motion could be seen as an opportunity to resolve the conflict, and this was what the German government had acknowledged. "You cannot vote against something if it is essentially something you agree with, albeit not identically worded."

Lanz also approves of the motion as far as the Arab world's expectations are concerned. "A 'no' would have sent a totally wrong signal here," he said. "A 'yes' was not expected, because it would have been too much of a snub to the Israeli side. But from a German foreign policy point of view, it was about sending signals that are understood correctly."

Germany has partially realigned its foreign policy. In many ways, it continues to follow established principles. Meanwhile, other aspects of policy, such as its position on questions of human rights, are currently being discussed - and challenged.

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