Arms deal could pave way for Egypt, Italy thaw

The agreement would include Egypt purchasing six Italian FREMM multipurpose frigates, 20 offshore patrol vessels and 24 Eurofighter jets.
Sunday 16/02/2020
A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) during his meeting Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti at the presidential palace in the Egyptian capital Cairo on January 14. (AFP)
A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) during his meeting Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti at the presidential palace in the Egyptian capital Cairo on January 14. (AFP)

CAIRO - A possible arms deal between Egypt and Italy could lead to improved relations between the two countries.

Relations between Cairo and Rome soured after the killing of an Italian researcher in Egypt. Giulio Regeni was studying Egypt's professional unions when he disappeared January 25, 2016. His body was found about a week later on a highway outside Cairo.

Since then, the two countries have been locked in a cycle of accusations and defensive postures. Italy accused Egypt of hiding information about the perpetrators of the crime. Egypt denied the accusations and tried to demonstrate full cooperation in investigations into Regeni's killing.

In November 2018, Italy handed Egypt a list of security officials it accused of direct responsibility for Regeni’s death.

However, a possible deal for the purchase by Egypt of Italian military equipment, including warships, frigates and fighter jets, suggested a change of course for relations between the two states, analysts said.

"It is actually a reflection of warming ties between the two states," said Akram Badreddine, a political science professor at Cairo University.

The agreement would include Egypt purchasing six Italian FREMM multipurpose frigates, 20 offshore patrol vessels, 24 Eurofighter jets, several advanced jet trainers and a satellite at a cost of $10.7 billion.

Egyptian authorities have not confirmed the deal. If finalised, the agreement would add to the billions of dollars in arms deals Egypt has reached over the past five years with France, Russia, China and other suppliers.

Underlying the deal is Egypt's desire to diversify its armaments, which marks a departure from its policy of dependence on one supplier, military strategists said.

"Diversifying the sources of armaments is a very important thing for the Egyptian Army," said retired General Nasr Salem. "This diversification helps Egypt avoid political pressures that may come with arms imports."

Egypt depended on the United States for most of its arms for almost three decades after the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, having shifted from dependence on the Soviet Union.

In 2013, however, the United States withheld military aid and rejected Egyptian requests for the purchase of some arms, in protest against the role the Egyptian Army played in the ousting of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi.

Involved in a fight against a branch of the Islamic State in Sinai and struggling to protect its extended border with neighbouring Libya, Egypt was forced to seek other suppliers.

"Egypt is the most powerful military in the region and it cannot depend on one or two arms suppliers only," Salem said.

This is apparently also about developing political and economic amity between Cairo and Rome. Italian officials have lashed out at human rights conditions in Egypt, against the background of the Regeni case, several times in the past years. Rome complained of the recent arrest of an Egyptian human rights researcher, who studies in Italy, on arrival in Cairo Airport from Italy.

However, the urgency for fence-mending between the two countries seems to be far stronger than it is for conflict, analysts said. Italy has a vested interest in the role Egypt is playing in the Eastern Mediterranean region, with Cairo working to become an energy hub.

In addition to the discovery of huge natural gas reserves off its Mediterranean coast, Egypt has established the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, involving Cyprus, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. It struck deals to import gas from Israel and Cyprus, with plans to process it at its liquefaction plants and then export it to Europe.

Italian state-owned petroleum company Eni is a major player in the Egyptian natural gas market.

Egypt actively fights illegal immigration across the Mediterranean. It has prevented its citizens from illegally boarding boats heading to Europe. It has tightened security on its coasts to prevent Africans, escaping poverty and unrest in their countries, from trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Developments in Libya also apparently spurred Italy to come close to Egypt, especially with Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Egypt, overrunning most of Libya’s oilfields and laying siege to Tripoli.

Italy used to favour the Government of National Accord, which rules Tripoli.

Turkey's interference in Libya, including sending Syrian mercenaries to back the Tripoli-ruling government, is as worrying to Rome as it is to Cairo, analysts said.

"There are fledgling understandings between Egypt and Italy on Libya," said Nadia Helmi, a professor of political science at Beni Suef University. "Italy sent its foreign minister to Benghazi to meet with Haftar last December demonstrating its openness to the other side in the Libyan conflict."

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