north africa

Merkel’s Refugee Deal for Egypt

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from Africa risk the perilous, often fatal, journey across the Mediterranean.

  • Facts


    • Chancellor Angela Merkel is visiting Egypt and Tunisia, where she is discussing the migrant crisis, terrorism and bilateral economic relations.
    • Ms. Merkel and some members of her government have proposed setting up refugee camps in North Africa to prevent people from making the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean.
    • Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has said the idea is unrealistic because countries such as Tunisia are not stable enough.
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Angel Merkel has praised Egypt's stability. Human rights activists aren't happy. Picture souce: Reuters/Amr Dalsh

Chancellor Angela Merkel is known for choosing her words carefully. Before departing for Cairo, she called Egypt a “stabilizing element” in a region that has descended into sectarian warfare.

The Arab world’s most populous nation has always played a critical role in the Middle East. For Ms. Merkel, Egypt is a lynchpin in her strategy to slow the movement of migrants from North Africa.

The chancellor met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo on Friday to discuss the civil war in neighboring Libya, the migrant crisis, counterterrorism, and bilateral economic relations.

Ms. Merkel is keen to cut a deal with the Egyptian president. The country has become an increasingly important transit region for migrants and refugees who may be seeking to cross into Europe. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, Egypt is hosting 190,000 refugees, 120,000 of whom have fled the civil war in Syria.

Ms. Merkel did find a half hour to meet with civil society representatives before having dinner with Mr. El-Sisi, whose military regime has systematically oppressed such groups.

Given this reality, sources in the German government told Handelsblatt that Germany and the European Union “have a great interest in Egypt continuing to pursue criminal human traffickers.”

Ms. Merkel’s proposal is simple. Egypt offers support for setting up refugee camps in North Africa, and Berlin offers financial support in return.

Germany has already provided Egypt €250 million in assistance. During her visit, Ms. Merkel announced that Berlin would provided another €250 million in 2018. Egypt will also enter into an investment partnership with Germany.

Pulling off such a deal, however, is politically fraught. Human rights activists are not happy with the chancellor’s position on Egypt. The stability that she praised has come at a high cost.

The military regime of President El-Sisi overthrew the democratically elected government of his Islamist predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, and has imprisoned 60,000 opposition activists. Torture is an everyday practice, according to human rights activists.

“El-Sisi is the worst dictator in the Arab world,” said Gamal Eid of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information. Mr. Eid himself has been barred from leaving the country.

Ms. Merkel did find a half hour to meet with civil society representatives before having dinner with Mr. El-Sisi, whose military regime has systematically oppressed such groups.

“Civil society and the rule of law play a central role in an open society and the fight against terrorism,” Ms. Merkel said at a press conference in the presidential palace.

High-ranking members of Ms. Merkel’s coalition government are also wary of setting up refugee camps in North Africa. Though he didn’t mention Egypt, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a center-left Social Democrat, said on Monday that setting up camps in Tunisia and Libya, at least, would be unrealistic.

Mr. Gabriel, speaking after a meeting with his Austrian counterpart, said an agreement like the E.U. deal with Turkey would not be appropriate in highly unstable countries. Under a deal reached last year, Turkey houses millions of refugees in return for aid and other benefits from the European Union.

“It would be great if Tunisia were so stable that we could bring in the U.N. refugee commission like in Turkey. But we can’t do that.”

Sigmar Gabriel, German foreign minister

Egypt has dismissed the idea of refugee camps in North Africa so far, but Cairo is also aware of the hefty amount of financial aid the European Union offered Turkey, which could tempt Mr. El-Sisi’s government to change its mind.

Since February 2016, Mr. el-Sisi has repeatedly said that Egypt is hosting 5 million refugees, way above the numbers provided by the U.N. Refugee Agency. Egypt’s bureaucracy is known for trying to profit off the migrant crisis by charging high fees for temporary residence permits.

Ms. Merkel made sure to emphasize German investments in Egypt during her visit. She helped open the world’s largest gas and steam turbine, which was built by Siemens. Chief Executive Joe Kaeser participated in the ceremony remotely via video.

Berlin has also supported Egypt’s participation in an International Monetary Fund program, through which Cairo has received financial assistance in exchange for letting its currency float freely. In the wake of the deal, the Egyptian pound has lost 50 percent of its value, driving hyper inflation in the country.

On Friday, Ms. Merkel will fly on to Tunisia where she will also discuss financial aid and the migration crisis. The chancellor has sought to make the economic stabilization of Africa a central goal of Germany’s G20 presidency this year. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is currently negotiating an investment partnership with Tunis as well as four other African countries.

On the issue of setting up refugee camps in Tunisia, however, Ms. Merkel will faces opposition from her foreign minister.

“It would be great if Tunisia were so stable that we could bring in the U.N. refugee commission like in Turkey,” Mr. Gabriel said on Monday. “But we can’t do that.”

Mathias Brüggmann is the head of Handelsblatt’s foreign affairs desk. To contact the author: Martin Gehlen is a correspondent in Egypt. To contact the author:

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