Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi came in for some heavy criticism on his one-day trip to Berlin, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel taking him to task over his past comments describing Jews as "the descendants of apes and pigs," and impressing upon him the need for dialogue with his political opponents.
But in the evening, he did some plain-speaking of his own. "The West has supported Arab dictatorships in the name of the war on terror," he said at an event hosted by the Körber Foundation. "That was hard for the people on the other side." Now, Germany and Egypt should be on an equal footing in their relations, he said. It was a speech that showed him at his best -- Egypt's first democratically elected president exuding confidence and pride.
It was followed by an interview with SPIEGEL Editor-in-Chief Georg Mascolo, whose first question referred to Morsi's anti-Semitic slurs. Morsi responded by saying that it was the fifth time he'd been asked about the matter in the course of the day and used the query as a springboard to speak about the right of the Palestinian people to their own state and to point to Israel's perceived human rights abuses.
Morsi presented himself as a self-assured statesman, leader of the most populous country in the Arab world, and seemed to direct his comments more to the Egyptian people back home than to his listeners in Berlin (English video can be watched here). He resorted to taking a nationalist, anti-Israeli stance on the international stage as a way of boosting his standing on his home soil, where the beleaguered economy and a bloody crackdown on widespread protests have left him with dwindling public support.
But when he was pressed on recent developments in Egypt by Markus Löning, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid, Morsi denied responsibility and passed the buck to what he called "remnants of the old regime."
It was a different message from the one he sent at his joint press conference with Chancellor Merkel earlier in the day. Then, he stressed his commitment to leading his country towards democracy, the rule of law, religious freedom and a separation of church and state.
German editorialists on Thursday noted President Morsi's doublespeak, but were in broad agreement that Berlin should accept the Egyptian leader's promise to push ahead with democratic reform.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"First she commemorated the victims of the National Socialists on Wednesday (during a ceremony in parliament), then she received Egyptian President Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who, a few years ago when he had no need to rein himself him, publicly ranted against Jews and Israel. Merkel must have felt decidedly torn on Wednesday. Anyone, indeed, might feel torn over developments in Egypt. Not all the protesters against the -- democratically-elected -- leadership are truly interested in democracy ... but there is no denying that in terms of rule of law, human rights and religious freedom, there has been no progress. Morsi is not celebrated in Egypt as a figure of hope but as an Islamist with an agenda. But we should take him at his word when he tells Angela Merkel that Egypt will become a democratic state and that he is interested in reform. If he means it, he will be able to find partners in Berlin."
The conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"Egyptian President demonstrated chutzpah when he left Egypt for a few hours, a huge business delegation in tow, to drum up state support and investment in Germany. He must be aware that the assumption in this country is that economic and political freedom go hand in hand, and that human rights are not just window-dressing. Perhaps he embarked on the trip because he knows that a stable Egypt that is not threatening Israel means a lot to Germany and the rest of the world."
"The fortunate aspect of this unfortunate situation is that Germany and the rest of the West can turn the tables on him.... He knows that he must rely on aid from open societies. When he states in Berlin that Egypt will become a democracy that allows freedom of opinion and dissent, when he says that he wants to further the process of democratization (whatever that might mean to him), when he says that he accepts Judaism as a religion -- when he, in other words, makes concessions to the West, it is most certainly a calculated move. But he should be taken at his word. The aid he desperately needs can be tied to conditions. It would be good if German economic leaders -- who in the past have shown an appreciation for autocratic rulers as long as they keep the peace -- could act in unison in this respect. Freedom is not negotiable."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Merkel and Morsi's joint press conference unfolded as expected. Morsi promised to press ahead with the process of democratization ... and he also stressed that declaring a state of emergency in cities along the Suez Canal was a temporary measure. In short, Morsi paid a lot of lip service to democracy."
"Merkel, meanwhile, refrained from too much finger-wagging. Which was just as well, since she no doubt remembers that for three decades, Germany supported the Egyptian dictatorship in the name of stability. Or she was bearing in mind the healthy present state of relations with Saudi Arabia, where the legal system is based on Sharia."
"At any rate, the Chancellor did not make the mistake of taking sides in the domestic unrest currently sweeping Egypt. The Egyptian people need to decide among themselves which path they want to take. But Merkel did urge Morsi to seek dialogue with democratic forces -- a sensible move. For Egypt, this is the only way ahead at the moment."