Alarm in Cairo about Italian moves over Regeni case

The fear in Egypt is that growing public pressure on the Italian government could force Rome to take further action.
Sunday 09/12/2018
Back into the spotlight. A 2017 file picture shows activists holding a picture of Giulio Regeni and candles as they take part in a demonstration in Rome.   (AFP)
Back into the spotlight. A 2017 file picture shows activists holding a picture of Giulio Regeni and candles as they take part in a demonstration in Rome. (AFP)

CAIRO - There is concern in Cairo over escalatory measures by Rome regarding the 2016 death of an Italian researcher in Egypt under mysterious circumstances.

The lower house of Italy’s parliament severed ties with the Egyptian parliament because of a lack of progress in investigations into the killing of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni. Egypt claims Regeni was abducted, tortured and killed by a criminal gang but the Italians blame Egypt’s National Security Agency.

The Italian Foreign Ministry summoned the Egyptian ambassador in Rome on December 3 to say the government would take additional actions in the case. Italy has since named five National Security Agency officials in connection with Regeni’s death and the Regeni family lawyer said she has a list of 20 additional suspects in the case.

“Everybody expects Italy to go far beyond these measures in the coming days,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. “So, we are also talking about other potential Italian measures that could make things worse.”

Regeni, 28, arrived in Egypt in late 2015 to research the country’s trade unions. He was reported missing on January 25, 2016, and his body was discovered a few days later on the side of a desert road outside Cairo.

Egypt worked closely with Italian authorities to unravel the crime but Italian authorities remain far from convinced about the investigation’s conclusions.

The Egyptian government has not commented on the latest Italian measures but the House of Deputies said it regretted the moves, saying in a statement that “unilateral actions” will only make things worse.

The state information service, citing an anonymous member of the judiciary, rejected Italy’s “record of suspects,” asserting that “charges should be based on evidence and not suspicions.” Those comments, which were carried by state media, were met with fury in Italy, particularly considering Regeni’s name was misspelled in the reports.

In Egypt, there are many theories about the killing, including that Regeni could have been killed by rogue operatives at a time when rivalries between local security agencies existed.

Another suggests that Regeni was killed by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to incite tensions between Cairo and Rome and damage Egyptian national security.

“The whole case is aimed at spoiling Egypt’s relations with Italy,” said Mohamed al-Orabi, a former Egyptian foreign minister who is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee in parliament.

The further distancing of relations with Italy is the last thing the administration of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wants. Since becoming president in 2014, Sisi has been trying to move Egypt’s foreign relations back on track.

Sisi earlier this year assured visiting Italian officials, including prosecutors investigating the Regeni killing, that Egypt would bring those responsible for Regeni’s death to justice.

Relations with Italy are of particular concern, not least because Italy invests approximately $5.6 billion in Egypt. The Italian state-owned petroleum company Eni is the largest player in Egypt’s natural gas and oil market and is an indispensable partner in Egypt’s drive to become a regional energy hub. Italy used to send nearly 1 million tourists to Egypt every year, a revenue stream Cairo is seeking to restore.

On the diplomatic front, Cairo and Rome are cooperating to find a settlement to the conflict in Libya, a country whose disintegration into chaos affected national security in both Egypt and Italy.

“All of these are reasons why the two countries need to work out a solution to the standoff over the killing of the Italian researcher,” said Khaled Okasha, a member of Sisi’s security advisory team. “This case will render relations between the two countries tense so long as it remains unresolved.”

Despite the new measures from Italy’s prosecution, the Italian government has sought to downplay their effect, indicating that it is aware of the wider foreign relations issues. Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini said December 5 that Italy was keen to maintain ties with Egypt.

Whether Rome can strike a balance between pacifying a public hungry for justice in Regeni’s case and maintaining relations with Cairo, a viable economic and political partner, remains to be seen.

The fear in Egypt is that growing public pressure on the Italian government could force Rome to take further action, perhaps freezing economic cooperation.

“There are also fears that the same pressure can force the Italian government into escalation at the international level,” Nafaa said. “This will cause Egypt problems it wants to avoid as it tries to economically and politically rebuild itself.”