On the night of Oct. 9, 2011, scenes of wanton brutality played out on the streets of Cairo. Shaky videos captured by mobile phones show images of peaceful demonstrators, including students and Coptic Christians, marching toward the Maspero building, which houses the Egyptian Radio and Television Union.
But then tanks rolled in and the masses panicked as the armored vehicles headed directly toward the crowds. Rather than slowing down, they accelerated and charged straight ahead. In the end, a dozen pro-democracy advocates lay dead, crushed by the tanks' steel armoring or run over by their solid-rubber tires.
Mathias John has not been able to get these images out of his mind. As an arms expert, the activist with Amnesty International knows exactly what kind of military equipment can be seen in the images: the Fahd armored personnel carrier. The 4x4 vehicle is based on the prototype of the TH 390 designed by Thyssen Hentschel, a German defense contractor that was integrated into Rheinmentall, another German arms manufacturer, in 2000. Since the 1980s, some 1,300 units have been manufactured in Egypt under license. "It is unspeakable that such a massacre was perpetrated with German vehicles," John says angrily.
With the help of parliamentarians from Germany's far-left Left Party, the human-rights advocate has submitted an official request for information from the German government. He wants to learn whether the German Economy Ministry has learned what is being done with "Made in Germany" military equipment.
But the ministry refuses to directly acknowledge what even a second-rate military expert should be able to clearly recognize from the videos: that the vehicle crushing the demonstrators is a Fahd. Instead, its response was that: "The federal government is aware of a report claiming that at least two armored personnel carriers wantonly steered into the crowds during demonstrations on Oct. 9, 2011 outside the 'Maspero' television building, killing up to 12 people."
John finds that cowardly. But there are reasons for such faintheartedness. The tank deal that the German government has with Egypt calls into question the principles on which its arms-export policies are based. These principles are actually supposed to prevent occurrences like those seen in the Cairo images. German export policy stipulates that arms be sold only to states that do not commit violence against their own people, invade other countries or pass on the weaponry to aggressive regimes.
Pumping Weapons into Crisis Zones
But such pledges have not been kept. Instead, images have repeatedly emerged showing German weapons in the hands of terrorists, individuals committing massacres and members of organized criminal organizations. Despite the visibility of cases such as the Fahd vehicles in Cairo, German export controls have not worked properly for some time now. Indeed, in this case, the failure can be seen on several YouTube videos uploaded onto the Internet by survivors of the Maspero massacre.
But something even more shocking is included in the government's response to the parliamentary request for information, in which the government reveals that, between 2004 and 2012, German companies delivered components for the Fahd vehicles to Egypt, including Daimler-made diesel engines and chassis, without which the Egyptians would have never been able to manufacture such armored vehicles. All told, the ministry cites approved deliveries of such parts totalling some 131 million ($170 million). Of this, 55 million in parts deliveries were approved in 2011, the year in which the Arab Spring began. What's more, the total value of exports could be even higher if components for the Fahd that do not require government approval were also delivered. Such approvals come from Germany's Federal Security Council, a nine-member body made up of the chancellor and several ministers that meets behind closed doors.
Germany's recent actions make it clear that the Arab Spring, which saw citizens in several North African countries rise up against their autocratic rulers, did not trigger a change in thinking about arms-export policies. The Economy Ministry, which is responsible for monitoring exports, states that it reviewed the already granted approvals "in February 2011, in light of ongoing developments." But, it continues: "Individual approvals were re-granted after the reviews were concluded."
Among these approvals were those related to the components for the Fahd vehicles. And in 2012 -- as if images from the Maspero massacre had never been captured -- the ministry also signed off on exports of Fahd components worth 3.5 million. "The government neglected to address the consequences of its mistake," criticizes Amnesty International arms expert John.
The Primacy of the Merkel Doctrine
It's also possible that the German-designed and partially manufactured armored vehicles weren't used only in Egypt as an instrument to violate human rights. Of the 1,300 vehicles produced under license in Egypt, an unknown number landed in countries ravaged by civil war, such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Economy Ministry sheepishly admits that "re-export requires the approval of the Federal Republic," and that this is stipulated in the licensing contracts. But the Egyptian regime never received such an approval, opting instead to simply export them at will.
For some time now, human rights advocates have called for the German government not to rely on the written end-user certifications supplied by the countries receiving arms shipments. Instead, they would like to see officials actively monitor buyers to make sure they uphold the ban on re-exportation. "Why doesn't the German military attaché in Cairo request to see the companies' books and search them for illegal export to third countries?" asks John.
This violation of German laws also puts the new arms-export doctrine of Chancellor Angela Merkel in doubt because it actually makes it easier to improperly export weapons into third countries. Merkel has selected so-called "strategic partner countries" that she intends to outfit with German-made weapons. But there is no requirement that these countries pursue democratic values. Instead, the doctrine emphasizes that they defend Western interests against even more worrying rogue nations.
Pursuant to this strategy, Qatar has received German Leopard tanks and howitzers, Indonesia has been allowed to purchase tanks and armored personnel carriers, and Saudi Arabia has been given the green light to order Leopard tanks as well. The Merkel Doctrine also aims to support the domestic arms industry, which has suffered as a result of declining orders from Germany's own military, the Bundeswehr.
While former Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak was in charge, Germany's arms exports to the country were widely acceptable. Mubarak's government was considered a reliable partner in the Middle East -- that is, until his security forces began running down protesters with Fahd tanks.
New Tanks 'Could Be Used for a Crackdown'
Now, Algeria has been promoted to the role of "strategic partner." The country is to serve as a bulwark in North Africa -- a buffer against the Islamist rebels raging in Mali. For this reason, Berlin gave Rheinmetall permission to build a factory near Algiers devoted to the production of Fuchs wheeled tanks, a very similar model to the Fahd. The first 54 vehicles have already been assembled in Germany and shipped to Algeria. "If the population were to rise up, the Fuchs tanks could be used for a crackdown," warns John.
What's more, the Fahd example shows that Germany is unable to prevent the tanks from landing in other conflict zones. Up to 1,000 units are to be produced in Algeria. Further export is not provided for, the Düsseldorf manufacturers and German Economy Ministry assure in unison.
Arms experts think this is implausible. A thousand is a huge production count. The comparatively large German Bundeswehr bought about as many wheeled tanks as will now be manufactured in Algeria during the entire Cold War.