The German government is currently working out guidelines for its feminist foreign policy (FFP). If it adopted a thorough approach, it would have to reassess bilateral cooperation with Egypt in all fields, including security, the economy, and migration.
In its coalition agreement, the new German government declared that it aimed to act “in terms of feminist foreign policy, and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock reinforced the intention to adopt FFP at the first-ever global FFP Summit in Berlin on 13 April 2022. Currently, the Federal Foreign Office is drafting guidelines, and the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development is working out a feminist development cooperation approach. Until respective documents and directives are published, the concrete meaning of FFP in the German context remains blurry. This article undertakes a thought experiment on how FFP could impact German-Egyptian relations if the government applied FFP thoroughly and comprehensively.
Intersectionality and Human Security: A Foreign Policy for All
Two core concepts of feminist theory have particularly far-reaching consequences for a state’s foreign policy: intersectionality and human security. Intersectionality describes how different forms of exclusion interact and reinforce each other, emphasizing that women’s struggles cannot be separated from marginalization due to other identity markers, such as skin color, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or sexual identity. FFP should therefore not solely be oriented towards the needs of women, but of all marginalized groups.
Furthermore, feminists criticize that state security does not necessarily imply security for the individual, and they therefore resort to human security as their key reference instead. Accordingly, human needs should take precedence over strategic state interests in FFP, and foreign policy decisions must not be guided by considerations on the macro-level, for example focusing on GDP growth or national security, but on the micro-level - asking how specific policies impact the people, including the marginalized.
FFP’s main goal is hence not to solely increase the representation of women. Rather, it aims to safeguard and improve the wellbeing of all humans by dismantling power structures, which are permanently (re-)producing domination, discrimination, and injustice. It promotes a foreign policy for all, instead of only considering the perspectives of some. Until today, international relations have benefited particular groups. FFP, on the contrary, urges governments to be mindful of the needs and perspectives of all human beings, irrespective of their gender, nationality, citizenship, social class, skin color, ethnicity, etc.
If the German government was to adopt such a comprehensive approach, this would require a thorough re-assessment of all aspects of foreign affairs, including bilateral relations with Egypt. This becomes especially apparent, when considering the most vulnerable groups in the country, because their perspectives have been particularly neglected, and they are often most negatively affected by current forms of cooperation. Therefore, taking their needs into account in bilateral relations must be a key element of FFP.
Stability Anchor Egypt?
Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, instability in Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) has been one of the biggest fears of German foreign policymakers. Many of them have been alarmed by unpredictable and often fatal developments, and in that context, they regard Egypt as a stability anchor in a region in turmoil. German politicians continuously highlight that the Egyptian regime is of key importance for German interests, for example regarding migration, the fight against terrorism, the security of Israel, the resolution of regional conflicts, as well as trade and investments.
At the same time, Egypt has become increasingly authoritarian since the military coup in 2013. The country’s human rights record is horrific, and state repression impacts all Egyptians who are not complying with the regime’s model of an ideal citizen – a fact, which affects especially vulnerable groups and minorities. Egypt is characterized by high gender inequality; security forces regularly crack down on the LGBTQI community; atheists are harassed and legally prosecuted; the Nubian minority remains marginalized; Bedouins are economically, politically, and socially excluded. The Egyptian regime does not aim to end the marginalization of these groups, but it rather reinforces existing structures of domination.
FFP would require German policymakers to fundamentally re-assess the “stability anchor” narrative and to stop perceiving the Egyptian regime as the solution to instability. Instead, they would have to regard the regime as a major reason for the manifold problems in the country. The German government would have to prioritize human security of all Egyptians over German national interests. Accordingly, human rights compliance and the deconstruction of unjust power relations would have to become the focal points of Germany’s approach to bilateral relations.
Several aspects of German-Egyptian security cooperation would have to be thoroughly reconsidered, including the delivery of armament. In the period 2016-2021, Egypt was the main destination of German weapon exports. In 2021 alone, the (former) German government approved sales worth an astonishing EUR 4.34bn to Egypt, equaling almost half of all its authorizations in that year. This was by far the largest sum ever approved for sales to a single country in one year – until then, the record had been approvals worth EUR 1.78bn to Hungary in 2019.
Yet, FFP advocates for demilitarization and disarmament, and especially for ending arms exports to states in which women and other groups are marginalized and human rights are systematically violated. Feminists argue that patriarchic power structures are always sustained by violence, and that militarized structures hinder sustainable peace but foster conflicts and polarization instead. Hence, following this line of argumentation, Germany should stop selling arms to Egypt.
The German approach in bilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism is very much focused on national security, and subsequent governments have stressed that Egypt plays an important role in combating radical Islamists. This, however, neglects the fatal consequences of the Egyptian regime’s rigorous and militarized measures on vulnerable groups, especially in the Sinai. Numerous human rights abuses in this context have been recorded, and the Bedouin community is further deprived of participation opportunities.
Moreover, the Egyptian regime effectively labels everyone as a terrorist who is against them, and it misuses the fight against terrorism to imprison tens of thousands of oppositionists. If FFP was applied, the German government would have to restructure its cooperation in a way that prioritizes tackling the root causes of radicalization, while ensuring that no peaceful critics are harmed, and that the security of vulnerable groups is not negatively impacted. In this light, Germany’s support for Egypt to become the co-chair of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), for example, appears unjustifiable.
Economic cooperation would have to be reassessed as well. Germany, like the entire international community, is very much fixated on macro-economic growth as the main indicator for economic development and success. However, Egypt is a prime example that growth alone does not improve human wellbeing, if it is not accompanied by distributional justice. In the 2000s, Egypt was widely praised as a role model for developing economies, and growth rates were indeed impressive. At the same time, however, inequality increased due to corruption and cronyism, leading to frustration among large segments of society, while the elite enriched themselves. This was one major trigger for the 2011 revolution. Today, the situation is by and large similar.
In the framework of FFP, the very aim of economic cooperation would have to be radically revised, and the impacts on individuals would have to guide decisions, instead of interests of large corporations and macro-economic data. Several authors have, for example, discussed how the existing trade system leads to increasing trade volumes but at the same time deepens the marginalization of women, because structural hierarchies mainly benefit the powerful and replicate inequalities. This, among other things, implies that potential effects on vulnerable groups must always be considered when trade agreements are drafted. The agreement between Egypt and the EU is not based on a respective assessment, and therefore Germany would have to push for a revision.
The provision of loans would also have to be reassessed. With EUR 2.6bn, Germany is a major creditor of the Egyptian government, and Germany was a main advocate for the three consecutive IMF loans Egypt has received since 2016, worth almost EUR 20bn. While payments were conditioned on far-reaching austerity measures which placed heavy burdens on the poor, they hardly included any political conditions or demands to dismantle the multiple factors that manifest structural economic injustice, such as the military’s economic empire and privileges. FFP would require a change in priorities. In the ongoing talks between the Egyptian government and the IMF about another credit, for example, the German government would have to advocate for conditioning loans on the dismantling of structures of domination and human rights compliance.
Development cooperation is another field that would have to be reviewed. Overall, substantially more finances would have to be dedicated to development efforts, as they have large potential to improve human security. Currently, the German government’s focal areas in development cooperation with Egypt are water, energy, and sustainable economic development, but FFP would require shifting to the protection and promotion of marginalized groups.
Overall, less than 2% of Germany’s official development assistance (ODA) had gender equality as a principal focus in 2019. This is below the OECD average and would have to be increased sharply. Moreover, supporting civil society and cooperating with feminist organizations would have to be prioritized over collaboration with state agencies.
Bilateral cooperation in questions of migration would have to be substantially revised. Whereas (forced) displacement is clearly an issue of human security, Germany’s approach in collaborating with Egypt focuses on its own interests, largely framing the issue as a matter of national security, while neglecting the needs and perspectives of concerned people. This not only pertains to Egyptians who do not receive asylum in Germany even though they are marginalized due to, inter alia, their sexual orientation, sexual identity, or religious beliefs. It can equally be seen when looking at Egypt as a transit and destination country.
The number of immigrants in Egypt is difficult to specify. While the regime has continuously referred to 5m in total, the UNHCR had officially registered 324,000 refugees and asylum seekers in 2019, mainly coming from Arab and East African countries. Egypt has no clear legal framework for dealing with immigrants, leaving them unprotected and in uncertainty, and their human rights are often not guaranteed. Being amongst the most vulnerable groups in the country, refugees lack social protection, fall victim to human traffickers, and are frequently harassed by security forces.
Subsequent German governments have hardly ever considered what their cooperation with Egypt means for refugees in the country. Rather, Germany has sought to externalize borders and strengthen border control, providing equipment, training, and finances. In 2017, for example, Germany and Egypt negotiated a deal, aiming to prevent migrants from leaving Egypt and traveling to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, without ensuring their wellbeing in Egypt. This is not compatible with FFP. Thus, Germany would have to thoroughly reassess its priorities, shifting from German national interests to the wellbeing of migrants both in Germany and in Egypt. Policies would have to primarily benefit human security of migrants and to focus on root causes of migration, first and foremost structural injustice and discrimination.
Some Changes, or More?
Since the new government took office, some changes in German-Egyptian relations can already be reported. For example, the foreign ministry’s first public statement under Baerbock was the demand to release an Egyptian human rights lawyer ahead of his trial in December 2021. The former government, in comparison, had hardly ever publicly criticized the Egyptian regime for its human rights violations.
Also, the coalition agreement foresees a stricter arms export policy, and a law regulating arms exports shall be drafted soon. High-ranking members of the new government openly criticized that the outgoing cabinet had greenlighted large-scale arms exports to Egypt in its last weeks in office, and when visiting Cairo in February 2022, Baerbock stressed that recipient countries’ human rights records will be considered more in future export authorizations.
Thus, the new government seems (slightly) more outspoken regarding Egypt’s human rights record, and arms exports to Egypt may indeed be re-assessed, irrespective of whether FFP will eventually be adopted. In how far (some of) the above sketched far-reaching and structural revisions will occur, however, depends on the coalition’s will and determination. Different scenarios for Germany’s FFP are possible. If the government decided to adopt a thorough version of FFP, changes could be extensive and wide-ranging. It is equally possible, however, that FFP is defined more narrowly or remains rather a rhetorical label, without major implications on the ground. Observers will closely watch and evaluate.