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Why Italy’s Decision to Resume Diplomatic Relations with Egypt is a Political Disaster

26 Sep 2017
By Jeremy Costa
Egyptian Protestors taken by Alisdare Hickson

Nearly a year after the murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni by Egyptian security forces, the Italian government must decide whether its citizens’ human rights or its economic interests in Egypt are more important.

Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Angelino Alfano recently announced that the new Italian ambassador to Egypt, Giampaolo Cantini, will be posted to Cairo on 14 December. The move ends a year-long diplomatic standoff following the 2016 capture, torture and murder of an Italian graduate student, Giulio Regeni, in Cairo.

Just days after Alfano’s announcement, the lawyer investigating Regeni’s murder was forcibly disappeared in Cairo. Ibrahim Metwaly, who has represented the Regeni family since the student’s murder, was secretly abducted by Egyptian security forces from Cairo airport on Sunday 11 September, and has been charged with “managing an illegal group, spreading false news … [and] cooperating with foreign organisations”, facing a maximum of five years in prison. Metwaly was travelling to a UN meeting in Geneva to address a working group on state-sponsored disappearances.

Regeni’s murder and Italy’s response

Regeni’s murder in January 2016 sparked international outrage. His death reverberated throughout the EU and a European Parliament resolution was swiftly passed condemning the killing of Regeni as well as the ongoing human rights abuses under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The resolution increased pressure on Cairo and led to an international stand against human rights abuse in Egypt. By April, Italy had recalled its ambassador to Egypt, citing a lack of cooperation during the investigation by Egyptian authorities.

Inevitably, the incident severely damaged Italian-Egyptian relations and, despite joint investigations, the governments failed to reach any consensus over Regeni’s murder. The Italian government rejected several claims by the Egyptian authorities, and even accused Egypt’s Ministry of Interior of the killing. On 15 August 2017, journalist Declan Walsh reported in The New York Times that the Obama administration had possessed “explosive proof that Egyptian security officials had abducted, tortured and killed Regeni” and that “Egypt’s leadership was fully aware of the circumstances”.

It is in light of these developments that Italy’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cairo is so controversial and, for many, dumbfounding. The decision may have severe consequences for the Italian Democratic Party government, which is fighting for survival in a fragile political landscape.

Worsening human rights in Egypt?

Rome’s decision to send the new ambassador to Cairo coincided—to the day—with the release of a Human Rights Watch report on Egypt’s worsening human rights climate under the el-Sisi government. The report makes specific reference to the murder of Regeni, stating that “the disappearance, brutal torture, and death of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni in February 2016, after he had been the subject of police surveillance, brought worldwide attention to the fatal consequences of Egypt’s internal security service run amok”. Regeni’s disappearance, according to the report, is just one example of the enforced disappearances that have notably increased since the el-Sisi government took office. Egypt has reportedly blocked domestic online access to the report.

Responding to domestic and international outrage over the decision, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said “The day the body of Giulio Regeni was found, bilateral relations suffered a big blow … Egypt is an inextricable partner of Italy, and also Italy is an inextricable partner of Egypt. Therefore, it is impossible for our countries not to have high-level political and diplomatic dialogue.”

However, the Italian foreign minister’s timing may prove to be a political disaster. Regeni’s death opened wounds that, a year on, remain as raw as ever; it has culminated into an international condemnation of human rights atrocities under the el-Sisi government. The huge crowds that attended the Amnesty International-run Verità per Giulio (Truth for Giulio) campaign events earlier this year demonstrated the widespread impact of the young student’s death. While many continue to struggle with the lack of answers over Regeni’s murder, the decision to re-establish diplomatic relations makes the already struggling government appear weak in its opposition to human rights abuses and, more significantly, weak in its defence of the interests of its citizenry.

Feeding the populist movement?

Rome’s decision is seen to be largely (if not entirely) motivated by external, mostly economic factors, despite the foreign minister’s assertion that the decision was made to allow for closer collaboration on investigations into Regeni’s murder. The government undoubtedly has a strong economic interest in maintaining close ties with Egypt. Namely, Italian oil giant Eni is drilling for natural gas off Egypt’s coast, including in the offshore Zohr gas field, a trove worth an estimated US$6.4 billion (AUD$7.9 billion).

Perceptions that the decision is another example of the Italian government putting self-interest before the desires of the Italian people could prove to be extremely damaging for Gentiloni’s Democratic Party. What is even more concerning is that it may give the increasingly prevalent populist parties in Italy more evidence that the ‘profit before people’ narrative, which it claims has come to define the current government, is much more than just political propaganda.

The populist Five Star Movement party, which has already proven to be one of Italy’s most favoured political groups, was proactive in pressuring Gentiloni’s government to stand up to Egypt’s human rights abuses following Regeni’s murder. The Five Star Movement pushed former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to cut all diplomatic relations with Egypt, stating “this is the price that Italy is paying for its unscrupulous foreign policy, crafting dirty deals with regimes in which there is ferocious repressions.”

Whether the assertion that the Italian government has essentially given up on justice for Giulio Regeni in favour of economic interests is true or not is irrelevant in this respect. There is already a growing frustration with Gentiloni’s government, and decisions such as this will be used by the populist movement to demonstrate that Rome does not have the best interests of Italian citizens at heart.

A missed opportunity

Italy’s choice to surrender to the economic pressures of a damaged Italian-Egyptian relationship sends a bleak message to the rest of the international community and a dangerous one to el-Sisi’s government. Despite rhetoric projected by Italian officials, Italy’s abandonment of its moral standoff, likely in favour of economic interests, sends a clear message to the Egyptian government that its continued failure to safeguard against human rights violations will come without consequence. This sets a dangerous precedent for other states that will inevitably become embroiled in foreign policy disputes with the unruly Egyptian government.

The Italian government has given up a golden opportunity to not only show its people that it represents their best interests, but also to lead an international condemnation of human rights abuses in Egypt and around the world. By choosing to instead resume relations with Cairo, it may suffer the political consequences it desperately intended to avoid.

Jeremy Costa is currently an intern at the AIIA National Office. He completed a Bachelor of Arts (International Studies) at RMIT University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.