Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 January - 1 February 2006
Issue No. 779
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Martin Kobler

Martin Kobler: We are all ears

Egypt has been a milepost in the life of Martin Kobler. He was born in Stuttgart in 1953, but began his diplomatic career on the banks of the Nile. Currently Germany's ambassador to Egypt, his career has followed the kind of trajectory typical in the diplomatic service. His education was varied and multi-disciplinary. He studied Asian philology, alongside the Indonesian Constitution and Maritime Law and obtained an Indonesian language diploma in 1976. Between 1980-83 he underwent practical legal training before joining the German Foreign Office. In 1985-88 he was posted to the German Embassy in Cairo, his first diplomatic position overseas. Ambassador Kobler returned to the German Foreign Office in Bonn between 1988 and 1991 before being posted to the German Embassy in New Delhi, India. He returned to the Arab world in 1994 for a three-year stint as head of the German Representative Office in Jericho following which he was back at the Foreign Office in Bonn, first as deputy head and then head of the Foreign Minister's Office. Kobler, who returned to Egypt as ambassador in August 2003, is married with three children.

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"What we want to do is enter into dialogue, especially with those who hold radically different views from ours."

"English is a must, but German is a plus," His Excellency Martin Kobler, Germany's ambassador to Egypt tells me. He is a disarming mixture of joshing informality and intense enthusiasm, and appears to like questions rather more than answers. He spoke animatedly about the German University in Cairo, which he considers a long overdue venture.

"We do not insist that all the students enrolled at the university be fluent in German. Many of the courses, after all, are taught in English as opposed to German." However, he noted, by the time of their graduation all the students should have acquired at least the rudiments of German. From the German University we moved quickly on to the Mubarak-Kohl Initiative, a programme that has come to embody the close relationship between Germany and Egypt. Its focus is on vocational training and on combating joblessness.

"Quality training," he says with typically disarming simplicity, "is surely good for the country". He is proud of the regard in which German precision and workmanship is held, not just in Egypt but throughout the Arab world. Everyone in the region, he suggests, has a gleaming image of Germany. And he is quick to praise "the dynamism of Germany's federal system which is a lively process".

Kobler cites the Mubarak-Kohl initiative as a fine example of North-South partnership. Profit-minded multinational corporations might have shied away from vocational training in the past, regarding it lying more in the public domain, but today they are paying it increasing attention. The young Egyptians who have enrolled on these projects have all, he says, benefited tremendously. They might not all make pots of money but at least they have a job and have mastered a trade.

Is there not something ironic, though, in Germany trying to alleviate unemployment in Egypt when it has one of the highest rates of unemployment in Europe? Some 5.2 million Germans are jobless, and in the former East Germany unemployment has reached a staggering 20 per cent.

I arrived a little late for the interview, to be met with praise for the German approach to conducting business, and for the virtues of discipline. "Being on time is a prerequisite, an absolute must," he told me, barely suppressing a smile. The wisecracking Swabian certainly has a sense of humour.

He described his childhood in his home state of Baden-Wurtemberg and the characteristics of the Black Forest cuisine. Then the conversation moved somewhat abruptly to the hijab. No female teacher is permitted to don the distinctive Muslim headdress in German schools. In some German states the hijab is strictly prohibited among the teaching staff, but not the students, and this has led to heated debate on the subject and much consternation and resentment among Germany's 3.5 million- strong Muslim community.

He points out that there are cultural differences between East and West. This, however, does not necessarily perturb the likes of Martin Kobler. "I do feel our cultures are moving apart and not closer," he concedes. He cited the example of Klaus Wowereit, the gay mayor of Berlin. "No Egyptian city can have an openly gay mayor," he remarked. "What we want to do is enter into dialogue, especially with those who hold radically different views from ours." He stresses, however, that there are certain issues on which there can be no compromise. "For instance we could not contemplate condoning so-called honour killings. There is absolutely no justification for them whatsoever. It is cold-blooded murder."

In the past six months, six young Muslim women have been murdered by their families because they were perceived to be leading unacceptable Western lifestyles and dating German men.

The German ambassador to Egypt does see some bright lights amid all the gloom. "I am happy that Egypt seems to be moving in the direction of democracy," he says. Yet he remains concerned about some trends, and stresses the critical importance of separating religion from politics. In Germany the Christian Democratic Union is not a religious party, he insists. "I am against interference by the state in private matters, including religious persuasion. I am a fundamentalist when it comes to the dignity of people."

"I do hope that just as southern Europe has become staunchly democratic the Middle East too will one day be thoroughly democratic."

After all, he says, "Egypt had a democratic constitution in 1923 when Italy was under Mussolini." He harks back to the past and draws parallels, remembering that as a student he had joined demonstrations "against the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal, against Franco in Spain and against the Greek junta."

He ponders the future of Egypt, a country about which he has come to feel passionate. "I want to know if in the future women tourists will be barred from wearing swimsuits at the beach. Many tourists will stay away if the country becomes dry and public consumption of alcohol banned."

He fixes me with a penetrating gaze. The purpose of his questions, I assume, is to bring to the surface topics that I might otherwise consider taboo. "Germany has no colonial past. But Germany has the holocaust."

In much the same vein he decries the death penalty and explains why it is regarded as a gross infringement of human rights in Europe. "I am against the death penalty," Ambassador Kobler says grim- faced. "The state does not have the right to kill people. The right to life is fundamental which is why in Germany and the European Union there is no death penalty."

"This is a moral conviction," the ambassador insists. He explains that while there are certain cultural differences between peoples and nations, in the final analysis there must be a meeting of minds. "All humans share basic values," he explains. His exuberant manner seems unshakable. He speaks with passion about human rights and European values. Yet curiously, all of this only adds to his allure.

"Gay rights, for example, are a fundamental human right." Yet there are sensitivities about the issue in Arab culture and the general public appears to be anything but unsympathetic to homosexuals, he acknowledges. Still, he argues, "sexual preferences are not any business of the state."

Whatever differences exist in cultural perceptions between Europeans and the people of the southern shores of the Mediterranean geographical proximity means that their fates have always been intertwined. "Europe, the Middle East and North Africa are our neighbours and the closest by far." Ambassador Kobler explains that Europe is especially interested in developments in the Middle East. Europe might not have the political weight of the United States but it does have tremendous economic and financial clout.

"From the Venice Declaration to the roadmap, Europe led the way. It was the Europeans, not the Americans or the Arabs, who came up with the Oslo process," he extrapolates. "I dream of a prosperous and politically stable Middle East and North Africa. These regions are very much a geographical extension of Europe. Their welfare and well-being is of vital concern to Europeans," Kobler continues. For good measure he adds that he doesn't subscribe to the notion of a clash of civilisations. "Yes, we do live in a global village," he says. It was something he experienced as never before when he took his 14-year-old son Moritz on a trip across Africa last year.

"It had always been my dream to cross the continent from Cape Town to Cairo. It was an exhilarating experience -- a unique learning process and tremendously entertaining and thought-provoking." He recounts the highlights -- the Victoria Falls, the Serengeti game park, Mount Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro and Zanzibar.

What he most enjoyed, however, was the freedom of the press and the openness of public debate and discussions of topics as varied as HIV/AIDS, democracy and religion. "There were absolutely no taboos," he says.

It was during his African trip that he decided to become a vegetarian. He has, he says, learned many lessons from his children, his daughter Lilli, who studies Arabic, psychology and anthropology in Berlin and his son, Felix, who was born in Egypt "in Al-Salam Hospital" in 1985 is currently a conscientious objector working as a volunteer social worker in a psychiatric hospital in Berlin. He firmly believes that he is uniquely placed to link cultures and bridge the East-West divide. His sister, for example, is married to an Egyptian who now speaks fluent German. "He did not understand a word of German when they first met and moved to Germany two years ago. But it is important that newcomers be able to communicate in German with their host community."

He is a great proponent of the learning of languages, explaining that in Germany it is compulsory for students to learn English and French, and there is talk of expanding the standard curriculum to include a fourth foreign language -- Russian, Spanish or Arabic. "The German government insists that newcomers must learn German. Immigrants cannot integrate into German society without a good command of the German language," insists Kobler.

He acknowledges the challenges faced by closer cooperation between Europe and the Arab world but sees plenty of opportunities as well.

Delving into some of the problems of integration he laments the ghettoisation of some Muslim communities in Germany. But on the positive side, he says, Germany has become more cosmopolitan. "My son went to a school where Muslim students made up 30 per cent of the pupils. He knows quite a lot about Islam."

In Germany, he says, "everybody has to go to school and there are compulsory lessons, including sex education. Some Muslim girls, or rather their parents, object to attending sex education classes and refuse to participate in sports." Muslim girls have increasingly opted out of sports and physical education classes. Yet he holds that a comprehensive educational system and a shared syllabus are essential for a fully integrated society. With a population of 83 million, Germany may be Europe's industrial powerhouse but it is also a very cosmopolitan country today. "There are more Russian Jews moving to Germany than go to Israel," he says proudly. "And Berlin is the largest Turkish city outside Turkey."

It is this rich cultural diversity that was celebrated at the 38th Cairo International Book Fair where Germany was declared, in an unprecedented development, the special focus and guest of honour.

photos: Hicham Safieddine

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