Palestinian-German politician in trouble over Rolex

Chebli is no stranger to controversy, having received major criticism for what was viewed as her defence of sharia.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Secretary of State for Citizenship and International Affairs in the Berlin State Parliament Sawsan Chebli (R) arrives for a meeting of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Berlin,  last January. (AFP)
In hot water. Secretary of State for Citizenship and International Affairs in the Berlin State Parliament Sawsan Chebli (R) arrives for a meeting of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Berlin, last January. (AFP)

LONDON - Sawsan Chebli of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) is in hot water regarding a 4-year-old picture showing her wearing a Rolex watch, which drew questions of whether it is appropriate for socialists to wear a luxury brand such as Rolex.

“Everything you need to know about the state of German social democracy [in] 2018,” read the tagline under the Facebook post that incited the uproar that was prevalent on social media.

Chebli, secretary of state for citizenship and international affairs in the Berlin state parliament, shut down her Facebook account after thousands of hate messages were posted.

“My Facebook account has become a playground for Nazis and extremists of all stripes,” she told Germany’s Bild newspaper. “Hundreds, sometimes even thousands of hate messages were posted… No matter what I have posted, it has been reacted to with hatred and hate speech. I do not want to offer these people a platform. That’s why I decided to deactivate my Facebook account.”

Chebli, who was born in Berlin to a family of Palestinian origin, became the first Muslim spokesperson at the German Foreign Ministry in 2014 and took up her current position in 2017. She is no stranger to controversy, having received major criticism for what was viewed as her defence of sharia.

“I’m the persona non grata [to my political opponents]. I’m the enemy because I show that it is possible to be a Muslim and successful and German,” she told an American radio station in May.

The hashtag #rolexgate was trending among German Twitter users. Chebli earlier took to the platform to defend herself, tweeting: “Which of you haters lived with 12 siblings in 2 rooms, slept and ate on the floor, chopped wood at the weekend because coal was too expensive? Nobody has to tell me what poverty is.”

Many have sought to use the picture and Chebli as an encapsulation of the decline of the social democratic movement in Germany in general and the SPD in particular.

The SPD, in many ways the “banner-carrier” of the German left, lost more than 1.7 million votes in the elections last year, emerging with the party’s worst result since the creation of the federal republic in 1949. This is a decline that has not abated. The party suffered another humiliating defeat in the regional election in Bavaria in October, slumping to less than 10% of the vote.

However, some question whether Chebli is being unfairly targeted because of her ethnicity, particularly as it comes not long after the saga over German footballer Mesut Ozil, who quit the national team citing racism and disrespect over his Turkish roots. Are Germans of non-German ethnic descent — like Chebli and Ozil — held to a higher standard, particularly by the media?

“Ozil’s departure is a confession of failure for our country. Will we ever belong? My doubts are growing by the day. Am I allowed to say that as a state secretary? It is, at any rate, what I feel. And it hurts,” Chebli tweeted at the time.

Green party politician Renate Kunast tweeted an image of Alice Weidel, who is the leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany in the Bundestag, wearing a Rolex watch. “Weidel is wearing Rolex. Will she now be disempowered?” she asked as images of male German politicians wearing the luxury brand were being swapped on Twitter by Germans.

The SPD defended Chebli, with SPD General-Secretary Lars Klingbeil using social media to hit back. “I have great respect for the journey of Sawsan Chebli. I’m glad that she is with us and that our country has such stories. We need more like it.”

It was not just from within her own party that Chebli found defenders. Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democratic Party, which describes itself as a “liberal” party, said on Twitter: “What Sawsan Chebli earns in the public sector is well-known, her work can be democratically decided, and what she does with her money is nobody else’s business. You do not have to be poor to be against poverty.”

Chebli might have closed her Facebook page but she is going strong on Twitter. She re-tweeted an editorial by Germany’s Zeit magazine titled “Of Course Left-wing Politicians are Allowed to Eat Lobster and Wear Rolex.”

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