German Chancellor Angela Merkel sparred with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi over the death penalty during a raucous Berlin press conference that descended into shouts and chants from visiting journalists.
Merkel criticized Egypt’s human rights record and condemned what she called the country’s “high number” of death sentences. Her remarks prompted a sharp response from El-Sisi, who defended his military as the “guardian of the people” and referred to his fight against “religious fascism.”
“What has happened in Egypt is a great matter and you must support us in this,” El-Sisi, the former military leader who deposed Egypt’s Islamist government and won last year’s presidential election, told Merkel in front of reporters.
Egypt’s divisions spilled over into the press conference, normally a staid and ordered affair in Merkel’s chancellery. A reporter began screaming that El-Sisi was a “murderer” after Merkel had told her earlier to wait to be called on. A group of Egyptian reporters responded by shouting the woman down, chanting “long live Egypt!” as the two leaders walked off.
Pressed on the death sentence imposed by a court last month on Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president, Mohamed Mursi, El-Sisi said the ruling was a preliminary step and that the legal proceedings for the former Islamist leader must take their course.
“I cannot jump over these procedures and talk about what I can do,” El-Sisi said. “Leave each action to its due time.”
Merkel condemned the hundreds of death sentences issued in Egypt since the 2013 military-led ouster of Mursi as part of an effort to crush political Islam in the country.
“The high number of death sentences is something that we should avoid,” the German leader said, reminding El-Sisi that her country does not support the death penalty, which was abolished under the Basic Law, or constitution, with the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949.
“We respect your perspective; you must accept our perspective,” El-Sisi responded.
The Egyptian leader’s three-day visit to Germany has drawn criticism, with the president of the lower house of parliament, Norbert Lammert, a lawmaker in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, canceling a meeting with El-Sisi.
Merkel sought to strike a balance between criticism and support for continued relations with Egypt in an unstable region. Germany has kept trade and political channels open with the nation, its third-largest trading partner in the region, since the Arab Spring in 2011 toppled former President Hosni Mubarak.
Germany this year approved an order of submarines for the Egyptian navy. During a March visit by Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel to the Red Sea port of Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt announced plans to have Siemens AG build power plants.
The fracas at the press conference wasn’t the only glitch. Merkel apologized for a 45-minute delay, citing a technical problem with an elevator in the building.
“We made many trips up and down,” the German leader said. “We made it in the end, helped by a second elevator.”