Berlin State Secretary Sawsan Chebli is competing with Governing Mayor Michael Muller for an SPD seat in the Bundestag. What does she stand for?
Sawsan Chebli (SPD) wants to enter the Bundestag photo:
Sawsan Chebli stands at a rally against anti-Semitism on Schillerstrabe in Berlin-Charlottenburg on Oct. 9, 2020, one year after the attack on the synagogue in Halle. The Berlin state secretary is actually on parental leave, but today she wants to show solidarity.
A man in a black biker jacket, perhaps in his mid-50s, approaches her: "Ms. Chebli, let me tell you one thing. I would never vote for the SPD. But if you were running here, I would vote for you because I have two daughters." He says this as if it were self-explanatory and trudges off again. Sawsan Chebli seems a bit taken off guard. Then she says, "That gives me hope." After all, she wants to run for the Bundestag here in the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf constituency. Except that the governing mayor, Michael Muller, also of the SPD, wants to do the same.
Muller could have run in his home district of Tempelhof-Schoneberg, but Juso leader Kevin Kuhnert had already entered the fray there. So Muller decided to move to Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf – probably assuming that Chebli would already make room. When she refused, there was a big row in the capital. Some murmured that she was damaging the party and stabbing her own boss in the back – because Muller made her state secretary in the Senate Chancellery in 2016. Others celebrated Chebli for putting an end to backroom politics and not allowing herself to be ousted by a man.
"Why should I, as a woman, vacate the seat? Why should I be humble?" Chebli asks at a meeting at the end of September in a Berlin cafe on Ku’damm. She can’t help but grin a little. "I live here, I’m involved in the SPD here, my son was born here, he should grow up here," she says. She announced several times a year ago that she wanted to run for office.
Only a handful of appointments together with Muller
She doesn’t say a bad word about Muller, but the two also hardly see each other because Chebli is on parental leave, her child is only a few months old. "I’m running for my district, not against Michael Muller," she says. This is "democratic competition," she says; it’s about winning back the constituency that fell to the CDU in the last two federal elections.
Most of Berlin’s SPD celebrities have said little about the unusual contest. Presumably because everyone knows that internal squabbling won’t get the SPD out of its 15-percent poll low. Kevin Kuhnert says, "My impression is that the excitement from outside is greater than within the SPD itself." But the contrasts between the two promise an exciting duel: young versus old, woman versus man, boss versus employee, Urberliner versus Berliner with a history of flight.
Their political styles couldn’t be more different: Michael Muller, who often seems a bit brittle and is an excellent politician, and the extroverted Sawsan Chebli, who is very active on Twitter and usually links the content to her biography. Both sides have their fans; it’s unclear who will win in the end. Now there is a member survey of the approximately 2,500 SPD comrades* in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf: Until October 27, they can vote on who they think is more suitable. The result will be announced on 28 October. October to be announced is not formally binding, but will probably be followed.
The hot phase is underway, but in the pandemic it is more difficult to promote oneself, which annoys Chebli. According to an SPD decision, there are only a handful of appointments where Muller and Chebli are allowed to present themselves together. Nevertheless, she is confident of victory: "I don’t stand for business as usual, but for new beginnings, perspective, for a courageous Germany that dares to put people like me in the front row." Her Instagram profile says: Social Democrat and daughter of refugees.
Chebli always makes a connection between politics and life. "I joined the SPD because I never wanted to be as poor and destitute, never as dependent on the political decisions of others as my parents were. My biography is the reason why I am where I am today," she says. Her interest in foreign policy, educational issues, her fight against the right – all this is connected with it.
But Chebli’s biography is both a trump card and a flaw, because it often obscures her political content. There are people who roll their eyes as soon as she starts talking. As a woman, a devout Muslim and an educational climber, she offers a triple attack surface. She is regularly showered with hate. Most recently, she was in the headlines because a sexist article appeared in the right-wing populist magazine Tichys Einblick that belittled her in the most vile way.
But Chebli isn’t just getting this hate from the right. When she condemns the BDS boycott policy, some call her a "traitor to the fatherland," while others don’t believe her commitment to fighting anti-Semitism. However, she has a prominent advocate in the activist and Auschwitz survivor Esther Bejarano: "We are united by the fight against the right, against racism and anti-Semitism. We need people like Sawsan in politics."
Strong voice against the right
Sawsan Chebli was born in West Berlin in 1978, the twelfth of thirteen children. Her parents lived as Palestinian refugees in a Lebanese refugee camp for 20 years, and in 1970 the family sought asylum in West Berlin. But until she was 15, Chebli was merely tolerated and thus stateless. Her parents were never able to attend school, never learned German, but Chebli describes them as "wise" people who understood that education is the key to success. In cramped living conditions, the daughter fights her way up to her high school diploma and later studies politics.
In 2010, she was appointed Policy Officer for Intercultural Affairs at the Berlin Senate Department for the Interior and Sport, where she promoted dialog between Muslims and the majority society. In 2014, Frank-Walter Steinmeier appointed her deputy spokesperson for the Federal Foreign Office. In videos made by journalist Tilo Jung from this period for his format "Jung & Naiv," she often appears unprepared and not particularly confident in her role as spokesperson. But some journalists say that Jung developed a real obsession with exposing Chebli at the time.
In December 2016, she was appointed Plenipotentiary of the State of Berlin to the Federal Government and State Secretary for Civic Engagement and International Affairs. Since then, she has been coordinating and promoting volunteer work and maintaining a lively exchange with Berlin’s partner cities. But above all, she is perceived as a voice against the right – and because of her Twitter-friendliness. "Who of you haters lived with 12 siblings in 2 rooms, slept&eaten on the floor, chopped wood on weekends because coal was too expensive? Who had to wait months for wooden crayons? Nobody tells me what poverty is," she tweeted in 2018, as a photo of her wearing a Rolex circulated.
"Why should I, as a woman, give up the seat? Why should I be humble?"
Chebli is not afraid to bring up the name of Gerhard Schroder, whose agenda policies were partly responsible for the decline of the Social Democrats. She says, "Schroder used to be my hero." She says she was attracted by his charisma, the way he conducted politics and his hawkish manner. "I had the feeling that he was close, that he spoke the language of all of us." Both Schroder and Chebli come from poor backgrounds; they are united by their upwardly mobile social democratic biographies.
"I was an advocate of the Agenda for a long time," Chebli recounts. She firmly believed in the principle of "promote and demand." "It worked for me, that was my view of it. My father also worked hard for very little money. Why should others have it easier?" It took her a while to notice the social coldness and injustice of the agenda, although she knows the shameful trips to the office from her own experience. Today, she says, "It’s good that we’re leaving Hartz IV behind," and lectures from the SPD’s new welfare state concept.
This text comes from the taz am wochenende. Always from Saturday on the kiosk, in the eKiosk or in the practical weekend subscription. And around the clock on Facebook and Twitter.
Sawsan Chebli is not easy to understand. Her commitment against the right does not automatically make her a party leftist. Nor does she want to: "I can appeal to different target groups: young people, women, migrants, but also conservatives." She has turned away from Schroder in disappointment: "It’s sad how he has lost his moral compass," she says in reference to his closeness to Putin and his statements on the Nawalny case.
She would like to talk more often about how the SPD could make good peace policy. Chebli wants the Bundestag to have a right of control over the decisions of the Federal Security Council. She wants to know how many weapons are supplied to countries that are declared partners despite human rights violations. In its policy on Turkey, it is committed to solidarity with democrats, holds out the prospect of EU accession, but does not rule out sanctions in the event of human rights violations.
Some accuse her of constantly portraying herself as a victim or of being too monothematic in her fight against the right. It’s as if the hatred she encounters on Twitter has no counterpart in real life. But for Chebli, being threatened, appearing on Nazi lists, is an everyday occurrence. She has been under personal protection for quite some time. Her closest circle advises her to stop tweeting so much, but it is important to her to be loud and defensible.
At the rally against anti-Semitism, she spots Sigmount A. Konigsberg in the crowd, the anti-Semitism officer of the Jewish community in Berlin. He tells her that more and more Jewish families want to send their children to Jewish schools in order to protect them. "Actually, all children should learn together," Chebli says. "Yes, but all parents want their children to be able to go to school safely," he counters. Chebli nods. A moment of silence follows. Not everyone experiences the reality of 2020 the same way.
Sawsan Chebli curls up in her black coat, she is cold, she looks tired. "I have to go slowly to my child now," she says and walks down the street, accompanied by LKA officers.