In North Africa, Merkel seeks solutions to internal problems
Under increasing pressure to stem illegal migration, German Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to North Africa to discuss migration and development issues with leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.
The trip in early March seems to be largely a success for Merkel, who convinced Tunisia to accept 1,500 failed asylum seekers and Egypt 1,000 others and speed up their part of the deportation process.
In Egypt, Merkel offered technical assistance for the country’s border control and coast guard, which are struggling to contain an influx of illegal migrants and terror threats. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Egypt is home to 5 million refugees and Germany fears many could be headed to Europe.
“Human traffickers are trying to open a new route to Europe through Egypt,” Merkel said at a news conference with Sisi. “We need to end this.”
In exchange, Merkel pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in financial assistance with about $528 million for economic programmes in Egypt and nearly $264 million to development projects in Tunisia.
Analysts said Merkel’s trip was likely an attempt to boost popularity ahead of September elections in Germany.
“Merkel’s party is facing criticism for their open-door policy,” said Aymen Briki, a doctoral student in law and geopolitics at the University of Sousse who focuses on Tunisia-Germany relations. “For her, this is a sign of strength.”
Germany’s open-door policy has been under scrutiny since close to 900,000 immigrants poured into the European country in 2015. Backlash over the policy intensified in December when a Tunisian migrant, Anis Amri, drove a truck through a crowded Christmas market, killing 12 and injuring 56.
Amri’s asylum request had been turned down by German authorities but he was unable to be deported after Tunisia failed to recognise him as a citizen.
The attack strained Germany’s relationship with Tunisia, which had grown closer since the 2011 revolution. Germany has opened numerous non-governmental organisations and political foundations in Tunisia and there are about 30,000 Tunisians living in Germany.
“After the attack, some German politicians called for halting funds to Tunisia until they are willing to take back failed asylum seekers,” said Paul Scheicher, who works at a German political foundation in Tunis. “The German media said that both trips were designed to solve the migration issue.”
Whatever the motives, Merkel’s trip to Tunis was beneficial for both countries, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi noted.
“We have agreed with Tunisia to send back 1,500 Tunisians in Germany who have been refused (permission) to stay in Germany,” Merkel said at a news conference March 3rd in Tunis.
“We will also help Tunisia set up a registration system. Replacement passports are then meant to be issued within one week,” she said.
One proposal left off the table during Merkel’s visits to Cairo and Tunis was the opening of refugee camps in the North African countries. While many have pushed for Egypt to establish a refugee camp similar to the one in Turkey in exchange for billions of dollars in support, Egypt has expressed unwillingness to absorb the economic and potential security burden.
“Egypt fights terrorism in Sinai and on the border with Libya already,” said Amira al-Shanawany, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Terrorists can easily infiltrate these camps and pose a new challenge for the security apparatus.”
“Refugees live among Egyptians, not in camps,” Sisi said at the news conference with Merkel.
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed voiced similar concerns in February about a potential refugee camp. “Our democracy is too young and I don’t believe this can work or that there are the capabilities for setting up refugee camps,” he said.
“Europe in general is trying to outsource its border to North Africa,” Scheicher noted.
However, during Merkel’s visit to Egypt, Sisi did sign a controversial protocol that would allow the return of German pro-democracy groups in Egypt. In late 2011, some German non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were forced out after being accused of financing the turmoil that followed the downfall of the Hosni Mubarak regime.
“I am very happy we were able to make progress with our political foundations,” Merkel said. “It is an important step on the way to more diversity in civil society.”
Some activists said such a deal would be a setback to Egyptian democracy and civil society.
“By signing such a protocol, Germany signals its very narrow interest in the work of its own NGOs,” said Gamal Eid, an Egyptian civil society activist. “As for other NGOs, they have nobody to defend them.”
Sisi said he hoped Merkel could breathe life into his country’s moribund tourism industry. He took her on a tour of the Great Pyramids of Giza and dined a few minutes from the Sphinx.