CAIRO – Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi travels to Berlin on Tuesday, where German leaders are ready to roll out the red carpet for the ex-general despite what monitors describe as his government's abysmal human rights record.
The trip, a first state visit long desired by the former army chief, will see him meet Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck, who as an activist played a prominent role in ending repressive Communist rule in East Germany. El-Sissi will also meet corporate leaders at a business conference Thursday.
El-Sissi's office said he seeks to boost economic, military and security cooperation, and highlighted 4.4 billion euros ($4.8 billion) in bilateral trade last year. Germany's Siemens AG has made the largest single commitment so far to Egypt under el-Sissi's yearlong rule -- a 10 billion euro agreement to build power plants.
Human rights groups on Tuesday urged Merkel to link closer ties to Egypt addressing pervasive violations.
"Germany should continue to freeze transfers of arms and security-related items that can be used for repression until Egypt investigates and brings to justice the security forces responsible for unlawful killings of hundreds of protesters," read a joint letter by five groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
But with much of the Middle East plunged into violent chaos in the years since the Arab Spring uprisings, Western nations have once again come to see many of the region's autocrats as partners for stability.
"Merkel probably doesn't have a lot of sympathy for el-Sissi, but she is enough into realpolitik to just go along and not stir up things too much," said Kristian Brakel, a Middle East expert at Germany's Council for Foreign Relations. "We have seen her deal with a lot of political leaders for whom she actually harbors no sympathies at all, so I don't see how it would be different with el-Sissi."
El-Sissi, who overthrew his elected Islamist predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, following mass protests in 2013, has said Egypt must focus on stability and security in order to recover from years of turmoil unleashed by the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Since Morsi's ouster, the military-backed government has waged a sweeping crackdown on his supporters and jailed secular activists for taking part in unauthorized street protests. Those jailed include some of the leading secular and left-wing activists behind the 2011 uprising.
Just this past Sunday, Egypt's state-sanctioned rights body criticized the practice of detaining suspects for extended periods pending the filing of formal charges and trial. It said that at least 2,600 people were killed in violence in the 18 months following Morsi's overthrow, nearly half of them his supporters.
And only hours before el-Sissi's arrival, a court said it would give its final ruling next week on a death sentence recently handed to Morsi. In a statement issued from Istanbul, the Brotherhood accused the court of delaying the decision to avoid embarrassing el-Sissi abroad.
Berlin police say some two dozen protests have been registered, but with fewer than 100 people at each, numbers far below the thousands of pro-Sissi demonstrators registered by Coptic Christian and other groups.
A plane carrying over 140 el-Sissi supporters, including celebrities, departed early Tuesday for Berlin ahead of his visit. But human rights activist Mohammed Lotfy, who was due to speak before Germany's parliament, said he was banned from travelling at the airport and had his passport confiscated.
"What is more concerning is that the regime is scared of even one person going out to speak critically. That is a sign of how frail the state is," Lotfy said.
El-Sissi makes no secret of his admiration for German efficiency and the country's economic prowess, and proudly announced Merkel's invitation at an investment conference in March. In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine earlier this year, he defended his government's actions by saying there is a "civilizational gap" between Germany and Egypt. "The police and people in Germany are civilized and have a sense of responsibility," he said.
Germany has not quite returned the same level of affection. The head of parliament, Norbert Lammert, last month called off a planned meeting with el-Sissi, citing Egypt's "systematic persecution of opposition groups," as well as "mass arrests, convictions to lengthy prison terms and an incredible number of death sentences."
Another point of contention is Germany's Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a non-governmental organization linked to Merkel's political party. Egyptian security forces shut down its Cairo office and sentenced its German director to five years in prison, and Egyptian employees to two years, all in absentia.
During a visit to Egypt in early April, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he hoped a solution could be found in the coming weeks, but no changes have been announced.