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German opera ball cast into chaos by award for Egypt's Sisi

Prestigious awards ceremony scrapped after backlash against handing Egyptian president prize for those who are 'a force for good in the world'
The Semper Opera House in Germany has distanced itself from an award given to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ahead of an annual ball (AFP)

A lavish annual awards ceremony at the Semper Opera House in Germany's Dresden has been cancelled after the decision to grant Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi a prestigious prize created a public relations crisis.

Sisi, the general-turned-president who is accused of overseeing countless human rights abuses, was set to receive the Order of St George at the Semper Opera Ball on Friday - one of several awards traditionally given out to notable people.

The 18-carat gold medal is a symbol of “the triumph of good against evil since the Middle Ages”, according to the event's website. It is awarded to “those who have, like St. George, been a force for good in the world, despite all opposition – those who swim against the current.”

Sisi, who came to power after ousting his democratically elected predecessor Mohamed Morsi in a 2013 military coup, has led what critics describe as the worst crackdown on human rights in the country’s modern history.

Though the Semper Opera Ball will go ahead, hosting 2,500 guests, its PR agency Zastrow + Zastrow told Middle East Eye that the award ceremony traditionally accompanying it has been scrapped.

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Sisi, however, has already been handed the prize.

A delegation from the Opera Ball Association, led by its director Hans-Joachim Frey, visited Cairo on 26 January and presented the award to Sisi at the presidential palace. News about the award quickly sparked a backlash against the event and its organisers.

At the time, Frey defended the award as a token of appreciation for what he described as Sisi's role in restoring stability and peace to Egypt and Africa. But that characterisation has been denounced by human rights defenders.

On Tuesday, Vanessa Ullrich, an expert at Amnesty International Germany, told MEE that those granting Sisi an award have a "responsibility to carefully consider who is the right person to honour in public and who is being called an outstanding bridge-builder and peacemaker".

"Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government, Egypt is experiencing one of the worst human rights crises in the country's modern history," she said.

"Since coming to power in 2013, the Sisi government has been systematically taking action against political opponents, critical journalists and members of civil society. They face arbitrary detention and unfair trials; torture and ill-treatment in custody are common."

MDR, the main broadcaster of the event, condemned the award as “wrong”, saying the media organisation had no influence on the decision.

The network’s entertainment chief, Peter Dreckmann, promised his team would not broadcast any part of the event that features Sisi’s award.

Multiple celebrities who had been invited to the ball have also distanced themselves from the event, in the aftermath of what German media described as a "scandal". The latest were German billionaire Dietmar Hopp and former Bayern FC president Uli Hoeness. 

'We would like to apologise for the award ceremony and distance ourselves from it. The award ceremony was a mistake'

- Opera Ball Association director Hans-Joachim Frey

Hopp, who was due to be awarded the same medal as Sisi, said on Tuesday he has turned down the award. Hoeness, who had been chosen to present the award to Hopp, has also followed suit, according to the German press agency DPA.

The gala's main host, prominent TV anchor Judith Rakers, announced on Wednesday she was pulling out altogether, complaining the Semper Opera Ball had been turned into a political event.

Another host, pop singer Roland Kaiser, said he is also considering his participation.

"I was really looking forward to moderating the Semper Opera Ball alongside Judith Rakers," he said on Facebook. "The awarding of the Order of St George to the Egyptian ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has turned the cultural event into a political one."

Following Rakers' withdrawal, her nominated replacement Mareile Hoppner also announced her rejection of the role. She cited the "very justified criticism of the selection of a prize winner" and regretted becoming a target of "the worst hatred and hostility" due to her earlier decision to co-host the event.

In response to the outcry, Frey apologised for the award.

“We are aware of the irritation that has arisen and we sincerely regret it,” he said in a statement. “We would like to apologise for the award ceremony and distance ourselves from it. The award ceremony was a mistake.”

Frey also said the award will not be part of the Semper Opera Ball programme, “in word or picture”.

Despite Frey's apology, public figures have continued to pull out of the event. Dresden's mayor was among those who denounced the honour. 

"It is inconceivable for me how this honour has come about and which criteria were followed," Mayor Dirk Hilbert said. "I am reserving the right to decide whether I will appear officially in the programme as I have done before, and whether I will take part in the ball with my guests."

It was not immediately clear whether the award will be reversed. Sisi is not attending the gala.

In 2009, the Order of St George was controversially awarded to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Three years ago it was handed to Saudi Arabia's Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman Muhammad al-Turki al-Saud, who was swept up in Riyadh's controversial 2017 purge.