On Sunday, Germany’s Semperopernball Opera House in Dresden awarded the Order of St. George to the Egyptian Dictator Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in recognition of his peace-making efforts in North Africa.
Al-Sisi “carries hope for the entire continent,” said the opera house, adding that he has stablised his country and promoted education and culture.
“The medal symbolises the victory of good over evil, depicting St. George killing a dragon,” gushed the state-run Daily News Egypt.
The German public weren’t convinced. Domestically, Al-Sisi’s rule has been marked by the arrest of thousands of political prisoners – including women and children – an unprecedented number of executions and the systematic medical neglect of detainees, which has led to their protracted death.
In September last year, as Egyptians filled the streets to protest against corruption, the regime responded with its harshest crackdown yet, arresting 4,000 people in the space of several weeks.
Egypt’s former investment minister has predicted the country will soon be bankrupt with the rise of public debt, soaring inflation, increase in tax revenues and subsidy cuts. Some 60 per cent of Egyptians are poor or vulnerable.
Internationally, Egypt has provided support to the Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, who is pursuing a campaign against the UN-backed Government of National Accord. As chairperson of the African Union, Al-Sisi should be brokering peace in Libya, not enabling the division of the country.
During the protests in Khartoum last year Al-Sisi used his position to insulate the military council from sanctions and tried to persuade the AU not to suspend Sudan. He is also part of the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war, the impact of which has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
When they were first challenged on Al-Sisi’s human rights record, the organisers of the St. George award offered a thin defence – that the prize was based on Al-Sisi’s contribution to culture, not politics.
But Al-Sisi’s regime has taken the Mubarak-era censorship to new heights. Now, soap operas are not allowed to contain blasphemous or political content, and police and authority figures have to be shown in a positive light.
Intelligence services have such great control over the media they are known as “Egypt’s editors in chief”, whilst belly-dancers have been jailed and fined for “inciting debauchery”. Artists, comics and satirists have been targeted and the famous Egyptian novelist Alaa Al-Aswany has been accused of “insulting the president” and faces a lawsuit.
As the pressure increased, TV journalist Judith Rakers said she would not be hosting the event and though singer Roland Kaiser said he will continue to be a part of the award ceremony, he added that if he “had known in advance” that Al-Sisi would be given the medal he would have refused.
Mayor of Dresden Dirk Hilbert said: “It is inconceivable for me how this honour has come about and which criteria were followed.”
I am reserving the right to decide whether I will appear officially in the programme as I have done before, and whether I will take part in the ball with my guests.
Whilst the opera house has not confirmed or denied speculation that the award may be revoked, head of the organisers’ association Hans-Joachim Frey, has now admitted it was a “mistake.” But on Sunday, as he handed the Egyptian dictator his award, Frey used the opportunity to tell Al-Sisi he wanted to enhance cultural cooperation with Egypt, reported Daily News Egypt.
Cooperation spanning a number of fields between European countries and Egypt has come under fire from human rights activists who accuse authorities of writing Al-Sisi a blank cheque to continue his crackdown.
In the first six months of 2019, the German government approved $899 million of arms exports to Egypt, making it the second highest recipient after Hungary. Through these arms deals, cash strapped Egypt is actually buying its legitimacy on the world stage.
Late last year there was outrage when the UN announced it was holding a conference on torture in the Egyptian capital, where an unprecedented number of people are being systematically tortured, some of them to death.
The anger was compounded when it was revealed the human rights organisations who consistently raise the issue of torture in Egypt were not invited. Instead, former minister Mohamed Fayek, Minister of Justice Hussam Abdelrahim and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry were set to be present. All three have been key to pushing the state’s narrative on terror under which severe human rights abuses have been carried out.
At the time, head of the Revolutionary Council Maha Azzam wrote to the UN’s High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet Jeria describing the conference as an “absolute kafkaesque horror” which “makes a mockery of human rights.”
Several weeks later the UN postponed the conference. UN spokesman Rupert Colville said the decision was taken after “growing unease in some parts of the NGO community with the choice of location.”
That protesters were able to persuade the host of the award to withdraw from the ceremony, and into making the UN change the location of their conference, shows the power of public protest and that pressure does work. It also shows the difference between what the people think and what the authorities do.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.