The Murder of Giulio Regeni and the Egyptian-Italian Partnership

The Murder of Giulio Regeni and the Egyptian-Italian Partnership

Four agents of the Egyptian secret services have been formally accused of the murder of the Italian student Giulio Regeni. Notwithstanding the widespread outrage among the Italian population, the government’s response has been widely perceived as weak. Italy is in the midst of an old debate: is it more important to uphold moral values or protect material interests?

A brilliant mind, an exceptional student and an enthusiastic young man with the potential for a successful career: this was Giulio Regeni. His body was found in Egypt in 2016: his bones had been broken, his teeth removed and signs of torture were present all over him.  Giulio was researching the status of trade unions under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the current Egyptian president. Suspicion about his relationship with an anti-al-Sisi trade union might have been the motive of his murder.

The decoys and misdirection by the Egyptian government have shocked the Italian people.  For years, people travelling around the Peninsula would have seen thousands of yellow signs, all with the same message: “Truth for Giulio Regeni”. Now, that truth might be unveiled.

The Italian prosecutor Michele Prestipino has officially closed the investigation and formally charged four members of the Egyptian secret services for kidnapping, torturing and killing Giulio. They will probably be tried in absentia, as it seems highly unlikely that al-Sisi will admit his government’s responsibility.

The Italian executive has condemned its Egyptian counterpart, yet things have not gone
further than that. Diplomatic relationships are still active, as well as trade. The Italian
dilemma has been the same since the times of Machiavelli: Morality or Interests?

Shared Interests: Libya, Energy and Weapons

Although some members of the majority in power have called for more robust measures
against Al-Sisi, the Italian government seems unwilling to change its current course. Amidst the current pandemic, the Italian electorate is more concerned with the issues of the day, and the current relationship with Egypt does not at present feel like a critical matter.
But why is the government so eager to keep its relationship with Al-Sisi?

Economically, the two countries are undoubtedly close: Italy is one of Egypt’s most
significant economic partners and the biggest in the EU.

The European country has already experienced a loss of influence on Libya with
the death and overthrow of the former dictator Colonel Gheddafi, a close ally of
Italy and a personal friend of former PM Silvio Berlusconi. This NATO-aided action
has led to a Civil War in Lybia between tribes and militias, and the country is now
split in two.

On one side, there is the official government of al-Sarraj in Tripoli, recognised by
the EU, the U.N., most of the Western Powers and Turkey. On the other, there is
the strong man of Cyrenaica and former ally to Gheddafi, General Haftar, who is
currently supported by the UAE, Russia and France (although Macron has always
denied any implication).

While the countries who support Haftar are mainly concerned with keeping in
power a “strong figure” against political extremism and strengthening their
economic presence in the country and region, those who support al-Sarraj are
mostly concerned with stabilising the country. Particularly for the EU, a stable
Libya is essential to guarantee a controlled influx of migrants. Nevertheless,
economic and ideological interests play a role as well, particularly in the case of
Turkey, which aims to expand its control on the Eastern Mediterranean.
In effect, Italy has not been able to be a significant player in this conflict.
Therefore, Egypt is currently its most precious partner in the region.

While Egypt and Italy are on the opposite side of the Libyan conflict (the former supports
Haftar, the latter al-Sarraj), they have some critical interests in common. The region’s
natural resources are an important example: the Zohr, believed to be the largest gas field
discovered in Egypt and the Mediterranean, has been found and developed by the Italian
state-owned energy company Eni, which has already invested more than $US 10 billion in
the country. Moreover, most of the largest Italian companies are already doing business in the North African state, with billions of $US invested and thousands of Egyptians employed. Even the arms trade has not stopped, and Italy has already sold two frigates to the Egyptian government. Simultaneously, talks with Fincantieri and Leonardo (also owned by the Italian state) are ongoing for significant investments and deals on combat vehicles.
Pecunia non olet, as the Latins would say. No matter where the money comes from, it
never smells bad.

International Competition

To better comprehend the Italian government’s motives, it is necessary to understand the international context.  The position of privilege that Italy has gained in Egypt is appealing for many countries within  and outside of the European Union. There are clear signals that, if Italy loses its position, others are ready to take it. Al-Sisi is well aware of this, and for this reason, he is trying to diversify his trading partners as much as he can, particularly in the arms’ business. And when Egypt is ready to offer, others are ready to take.
Russia has recently become a strategic ally, particularly for its support to Haftar in Libya,
while France is eager to become Egypt’s main partner in the EU. A few days after the
Italian prosecutor pressed charges against the four Egyptian agents, Macron received
Al-Sisi at the Élysée Palace. The excess in his hospitality for a semi-authoritarian leader
has been carefully hidden to the French media while being repeatedly shown on Egyptian
television. To make matters worse, Macron has given Al-Sisi the “Legion of Honour”,
France’s highest order of merit. This has caused a reaction from many Italian recipients of
the Legion and has led some of them to hand it back.

In fairness, the Legion is often awarded as part of the French protocol, and controversial
figures like Mussolini, Franco, or Assad have received it in the past. This is because the
Legion is not an individual medal, but is divided into different ranks. The three main ranks  are generally awarded only to people with exceptional merits. There are then two dignitary titles that are often awarded to foreign leaders at the President’s discretion (as it is the case with al-Sisi). This is undoubtedly a sign of France’s attempts to get closer to Egypt’s current leader, but it is hardly a scandal when compared to precedents and is part of the game of French diplomacy.

France, along with Russia, has been at the forefront of the support for Haftar, taking the
place of Italy as the most influential EU country in Libya. Now Macron seems to be willing
to expand his influence, regardless of the current abuse of human rights on the part of his ally.

While France and Italy are competing for their influence on Egypt, with Al-Sisi being the
only real winner, the European Parliament has approved a resolution condemning Egypt
and inviting member states to impose sanctions and limit any trade deal temporarily. A
seemingly good piece of news, yet the resolution is not binding, and it seems highly unlikely that it will suffice to convince France and Italy to stop competing to gain the favor of a key partner.

In other words, realism will probably triumph against morality, and even though we are close to gaining the “Truth for Giulio Regeni”, “Justice for Giulio Regeni” seems farther than ever.

Categories: Insights, Politics

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