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The Despot Dilemma: Germany Divided over How to Deal with Dictators

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Speculation about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's possible departure for Germany for medical treatment is putting pressure on Berlin. The case highlights the German government's problems in dealing with autocratic leaders: It craves stability but doesn't want to be seen as propping up dictators.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to the Chancellory in Berlin in this September 2010 photo. Zoom
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to the Chancellory in Berlin in this September 2010 photo.

The Max Grundig Clinic is an exclusive getaway 800 meters (2,600 feet) above sea level in the idyllic surroundings of the Black Forest in southwestern Germany. The luxury private hospital has large suites and oil paintings on the walls. It proudly trumpets the claim that it provides "an ideal atmosphere for recuperation, relaxation and reorientation."

Could it also be a place for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to retreat to?

The long-standing autocrat may soon check into the clinic in Bühl near the city of Baden-Baden. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE, exploratory talks are already underway about a possible stay by Mubarak in Germany. The scenario is certainly attractive: Egypt would get rid of its unpopular president, and Mubarak could make a dignified departure.

But it's still not clear whether the man himself is even interested in this exit strategy. In fact, it currently looks increasingly likely that he could tighten his grip on the reins of power.

Facilitating a Political Transition

Nevertheless, the mere possibility that Germany might host a former dictator has sparked fierce political debate in the country. Martin Schulz, the head of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, has nothing against such a retreat. "Why not?" he says. "I'm in favor of any moves that will allow him to relinquish power in a dignified manner and facilitate the political transition in Egypt."

"The German government should discreetly signal to Mubarak that he can come to Germany if he wants to," Elmar Brok, a member of the European Parliament for the center-right Christian Democrats, told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper. "If there is a way to achieve a peaceful transition in Egypt, then one should do it."

Other members of Germany's governing Christian Democrats and their business-friendly coalition partners, the Free Democratic Party, have voiced similar sentiments about a possible hospital stay for Mubarak in their country.

But many others oppose the very notion. Green Party floor leader Jürgen Trittin, for example, told the Hannoversche Allgemeine newspaper that Germany should not provide Mubarak with an easy way out of his predicament. "That's about the last thing the Egyptian people expect us to do," he says.

The Green Party co-leader Cem Özdemir is also skeptical. "Care must be taken," he says, "to ensure that Mubarak doesn't use a stay at a German hospital to duck his responsibilities toward the people of Egypt. Germany cannot become a luxury sanctuary for deposed despots."

Rainer Stinner, a foreign policy expert with the FDP, told the Frankfurter Rundschau that a stay in Germany on medical grounds would be acceptable. "But exile in Germany would be very problematic," he added. He argued that there were other countries that could take Mubarak.

Softly-Softly Approach

The dispute perfectly highlights the dilemma that Germany's diplomats face in dealing with the Egyptian autocrat and other dictators in the region. These regimes have been tolerated for decades as part of a quid pro quo for cooperation on security issues. These dubious pacts worked fine for a long time. But now uprisings in various Arab countries have turned the arrangement into a political albatross around the German government's neck. After all, years of close ties with shady leaders can't be undone overnight.

This was most recently evident at the Munich Security Conference this weekend, where not a single minister, prime minister or head of state so much as mentioned the Cairo demonstrators' central demand, namely that Mubarak resign immediately.

The German government is well aware of the possible dangers of such a move. One cabinet member has already admitted the government is skating on thin ice. Chancellor Angela Merkel has also suggested as much. The German chancellor argues in favor of a realpolitik approach, but insists she is always very reserved in her contact with authoritarian leaders like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

How, then, should autocrats be treated? Should Berlin continue with business as usual, or has the time come to reassess its softly-softly attitude to often brutal dictators?

The proponents of the former approach see no reason to change the way autocratic leaders are treated, and believe Germany should carry on as before. In other words, they want Germany's politicians to go on cooperating with despots behind the scenes and only call for democracy in pious-sounding public speeches at most. The advantage of this approach is that Germany can rely on a certain amount of stability in the countries in question, which in turn favors security and trade.

Political scientist Christian Hacke is one of those calling for such pragmatism. "We have to weigh up the moral imperatives and other interests on a case-by-case basis," the foreign-policy expert says. "You can't generalize. Whether it's dealing with Tunisia, Egypt, Syria or Yemen, the German government should never decide abstractly, but rather based on the individual situation."

Hacke says that such a policy has ensured that few mistakes were made in recent years. If anything, he says, German foreign policy was "too steeped in moral considerations." Hacke points to Afghanistan, where he says people initially argued about rights for women and about new schools but gave too little thought to strategic geopolitical considerations.

"There are no grounds for a fundamental shift in German foreign policy," argues Ruprecht Polenz, a Christian Democratic politician who chairs the parliamentary foreign-affairs committee. Whether it's China, Russia, Uzbekistan or Egypt, "the strategy will always change depending on the relevant country's size and significance." One thing is clear, he says: "There can be no such thing as 'business as usual' when dealing with authoritarian regimes."

A Clean Break with Cairo?

The opponents of Germany's previous approach, however, feel that history has vindicated them. They are now calling for a complete overhaul of Germany's attitude to autocrats -- even if they're not totally sure what they want in its place. Jürgen Trittin is one of these revisionists. The Green politician is constantly criticizing Chancellor Merkel's handling of the Egyptian crisis. "The German government must now unambiguously demand a peaceful transition," he recently said. "That is why we want Mr. Mubarak to resign." Trittin even proposes considering a freeze on European Union aid to pressure the Egyptian president into leaving. It's an argument in favor of a clean break with the regime in Cairo.

That's something Trittin's Green Party colleagues have always shied away from, however, not least because Merkel's cabinet wasn't the first to find itself backed into a corner over the despot dilemma. The former coalition government of the center-left Social Democrats and Greens, which was in power between 1998 and 2005, turned a blind eye to Mubarak's transgressions. "We knew human rights were being trampled on in Egypt," admits Kerstin Müller, who was a senior official in the German Foreign Ministry under then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, also a member of the Green Party.

In a recent appearance on a popular German television talk show, Jürgen Chrobog, another former senior Foreign Ministry official from the Fischer era, criticized the fact that "stability is still our number-one priority." He added that Mubarak had to go "immediately." Chrobog said he had nothing against Germany wanting stable partners, but argued that Berlin should have spoken out more strongly about conditions in Egypt. "After all, it goes without saying that we knew about the human rights abuses there."

Germany's Social Democrats have also become self-critical. One of those speaking out is Gernot Erler, who was a senior official in the Foreign Ministry under former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Erler says that Mubarak played such a pivotal role in the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians that people didn't look more closely at his domestic policies. It was "a high price to pay," as Erler now readily admits. Worse still, the pact with the despot didn't pay off. "The peace process is in a disastrous state. That's the hardest thing to accept," Erler concedes.

West's Credibility at Risk

But what does the German chancellor want? As is often the case, she's keeping her cards close to her chest, and waiting to see how things develop in North Africa. Even after Mubarak leaves power, which he must do eventually, there will probably be a new strongman in place that Berlin will have to deal with.

Foreign-policy expert Hacke doubts Egypt has the prerequisites for the hoped-for civil society and liberal democracy. "We shouldn't rule out the possibility of an enlightened military dictatorship with greater legal security," he says.

One thing is certain: Whoever comes to power in Cairo will be viewed much more critically in Berlin. Merkel and her colleagues have raised the bar, and the West won't tolerate another Mubarak. If it did, it would weaken its own credibility even further -- and sink deeper than ever into the despot dilemma.

SPIEGEL ONLINE editors Florian Gathmann and Philipp Wittrock contributed to this report.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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