(This interview appeared in the Passauer Neue Presse on 3 February 2011)
Conditions in Egypt are reminiscent of civil war, and the country is undergoing a wave of violence.Would you say the situation was getting out of control?
I am very concerned about the escalating situation in Cairo. Under no circumstances is it acceptable to beat demonstrators violently to the ground. Egypt is experiencing a historic moment, which must take its course peacefully both domestically and insofar as it is reflected in Egypt’s external affairs. The changes have to begin now. The Government has to be prepared to engage in dialogue with those who are demonstrating for change and freedom.
Is democratic reform possible at all while Mubarak remains holding the reins?
Who presides over the reform process is up to the people of Egypt and nobody else. Who leads Egypt will be decided in Egypt. The German Government is on the side of democracy, human rights and civil liberties.
The Federal Foreign Office is warning against travelling to Egypt.Would you judge someone who nonetheless went to be acting irresponsibly?
I appeal to everybody to take the Foreign Office’s travel advice seriously and to follow it. It is true that German holiday-makers in the tourist areas have not been exposed to serious danger so far. However, the developments in Cairo are dramatic, and it is difficult to predict what effect they will have on the country as a whole. The Federal Foreign Office is doing its best to help all Germans who wish to leave Egypt and particularly the cities like Cairo and Alexandria. On Wednesday alone, we flew another thousand Germans out of Cairo.
You only recently described Mubarak as a “wise man”.Has the West been supporting him for too long?
We would often bring up the issues of freedom and civil rights; I myself did when I visited Cairo at the start of my term in office. We cannot deny, though, that Egypt has played an extremely constructive role in the Middle East peace process in recent years. The priority now is that the reform process be conducted peacefully and any further escalation and violence prevented. What we do not want, after all, is for fundamentalists, extremists and religious radicals to reap the benefits of this freedom movement in Egypt in the end. And that is what will happen if the demonstrators are violently suppressed.
First Tunisia, now Egypt and Yemen – is the region at risk of further instability?
It is my hope that a process of democratization will develop out of this situation, like in Eastern Europe at the end of the 80s. Nothing will ever be the same again after these demonstrations for freedom, opportunities and civil rights – not only for Egypt but for the entire region. There's no pushing the spirit of freedom back into the bottle.
Is the Free Democratic Party still the party of the euro and of European unification?
We as a party feel patriotic loyalty towards Europe. Solidarity is a part of what Europe means, but so is having a clear compass when it comes to regulating the thing. You cannot combat a debt crisis by accumulating more and more new debts; only structural reforms can help. The EU member states need to get their finances in order. What we want is for those European countries which are not yet competitive enough to get themselves in shape.
How can you explain the vociferous criticism which leading FDP politicians have been levelling at Chancellor Merkel’s plans for a European economic government?
We all want the EU to be strong. We have no differences there. What the Government wants is for other countries to be held to their obligations in, for example, reforming their social security systems. It would be ludicrous for people in Germany to have to retire at 67 while other countries in the EU stick with a retirement age of 59 or 60. We want to see investment in education, research and infrastructure take precedence over consumption expenditure throughout the EU.
(This interview was conducted by Rasmus Buchsteiner.)