‘Dear Chancellor Merkel’: On good and bad tyrants

In anticipation of the recent visit of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to Germany, five international human rights groups sent an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.


The outrage at the visit and the way it has been expressed in some mainstream human rights discourse is one that merits more attention when it comes to the standards and legitimacy that are awarded to some tyrants and not to others, or to some tyrants in their relations to other tyrants.


Perhaps the German crimes, or other “Western” crimes these days are not as spectacular as those of someone like Sisi, or not reported with the same language of perpetrator and victim. They are hidden under a rhetorical cloak of a democratic West and its human rights, the narrative and ongoing myth that the West is rational, non-violent, diplomatic, while those in the East and the South are the opposite. They oppress their people, they are violent, corrupt, irrational and they even want to come and ruin our peaceful haven on their overcrowded boats, through their uncontrolled borders, and with their strange habits. And we will save them by destroying their boats, or sometimes bombing their countries. This is not a crime, this is humanitarianism, or at least it is border control or humanitarian military intervention. It seems clear every day that the Orientalist logic and tropes that the late Edward Said dissected and analyzed are far from gone and appear in the most well intended of places.


So what is so outrageous when a politician who is responsible for the suffering of countless people meets another who is responsible for the suffering of countless other people? Should we not be more concerned about how both are morally corrupt and responsible for the destruction of thousands, if not millions of lives, instead of imploring one of them to pressure the other?


“Dear Chancellor Merkel,” the letter starts, “we, the undersigned international human rights organizations, write to you in advance of your scheduled meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt.” The premise of the letter in being directed at the Chancellor is already faulty, and this is not in any way to say that one should not protest against Sisi, to the contrary, more protest should be more than welcome, as are other modes of struggle. However, it is the destination that seems unlikely and somewhat hypocritical. Imploring the German state not to meet with the tyrant from the South, somehow absolves the German state from its own crimes and its role in the crimes of this and other regimes in the world.


The death of thousands of human beings in the Mediterranean is not an accident, it is murder. And a murder implies murderers. This is just the recent example that the media seems to care about in the last few months, but there are countless other examples, less spectacular perhaps, less bloody or more indirect, but examples nonetheless of lives destroyed knowingly and purposefully by government policies. Austerity as it is being imposed in Europe and the destruction of millions of lives and livelihoods, mostly in Southern Europe, by these policies, which are to say the least tyrannical, utterly undemocratic, short sighted and immoral, is not something that the “dear Chancellor” is unaware of, or of their human repercussions.


The letter goes on to list and explain the crimes of the Egyptian regime, assuming, even if for rhetorical purposes, that the German state, and its Chancellor, are unaware of this information, an assumption that is both far fetched and deeply telling about the moral assumptions that are projected upon the European government.


The Chancellor, is urged “in the strongest terms to make clear in [her] meetings with President al-Sisi, and in public remarks [her] or other German officials may make in connection with this visit, that the nature and extent of Germany’s relations with Egypt going forward will depend on the Egyptian authorities taking prompt and concrete measures to put an end to government policies that systematically violate Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law as well as the Egyptian Constitution of 2014.”


The visit was met with protests on the streets and at the joint press conference held by the Egyptian president and the German chancellor, protests that were far more relevant and with a far better narrative than that of the open letter. Since the letter encouraged the Chancellor to “make clear to President al-Sisi that closer German ties with Egypt depend on his government’s taking steps to address these concerns.”


Merkel, in an attempt to demonstrate the human rights concerns of her government, chose to limit this “strong urge” to criticism of the use of the death penalty in Egypt, while pledging closer economic relations and coordination in the fight against Islamic extremism. After all, Egypt according to the Chancellor, and not surprisingly considering the economic and the political alliance that exists between the Egyptian state and the German one, is “an anchor of stability” in a region torn by all kinds of instabilities.


Stability of course is the key word that allows Western states to justify their involvement and support and often sponsoring of ruthless regimes around the world, while provoking or profiting from the occasional instability in other places. And what better way to insure stability than through “economic development?” — or in other words the massive investments by major companies who are one major benefactor of precisely the undemocratic and corrupt nature of some of the regimes in the “developing countries” — both stable and unstable.


“Germany”, the letter continues, “should continue to freeze the transfer of all arms and security related items that could be used for repression until Egyptian authorities have carried out judicial and impartial investigations into the killings of hundreds of protesters by police and security forces, and bring those responsible to justice.” Is it logical then to assume that selling those same arms and security related items is acceptable once these investigations are concluded? And are these items not precisely designed for repression, so their usefulness might be obsolete once the state is no longer repressing its population? This statement assumes, falsely, that the German government would have any moral qualms about supporting and dealing with people who oppress and destroy the lives of others and is founded on a denial of the destructive and criminal nature of the policies of the German government itself and its complicity with such regimes.


So why is it always these client tyrants that are the target of outrage on human rights but not their backers and suppliers? And why is it that often, as is the case in this letter, it is precisely these backing tyrants, the tyrants behind the scenes, that are implored to make things better and treated as potential allies, rather than accomplices, if not active participants, in the repression and the very existence of such repressive regimes?


European, Western, and “developed” countries seemingly do not have tyrants — those singular, individual faces that give a personified identity to criminality and disregard human rights and lives. They have bad policies, not bad tyrants, they either interfere too much or not enough (perhaps Zizek’s argument in his interview with Der Spiegel — that the greatest threat to Europe is in its inertia — can be read here as imploring Europe to lead again, as if that universalist role of spreading “European values of enlightenment” has not already lead to enough death and destruction).


The West has no tyrants, only governments and the occasional politician who is accused of war crimes by a segment of the international Left, such as George W. Bush.


The outrage at Sisi’s visit to Germany in Germany and imploring the German government not to meet with him, presumes that this government is either innocent, or could be innocent, that it is not complicit, that it is ignorant, or most importantly that it is there to give legitimacy, as if it has moral legitimacy to give.


When it is in a certain direction, selling weapons, plundering economies, manipulating politics, bombing people, is called business, diplomacy or humanitarian military intervention. The human cost, the lives destroyed, the blood spilled by the German government, among many others, is no less than that by Sisi’s, and the two are no less than complicit. So why do we write a letter saying, “dear Chancellor Merkel”? Let us imagine for a second a letter starting with “dear President al-Sisi,” please do not deal with the European Union, because its policies kill people and please pressure your European visitors to respect the value of human life. Both letters should be equally absurd in their premise, and their wording, because the two regimes are not inherently so different and such a letter should be addressed to neither of them.

One call for demonstration against the visit put it very clearly: “They are complicit in crime, let’s unite in solidarity.”

Walid el-Houri 

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