Egypt and Italy work to mend fences, Libya remains sticking point

Behind the renewed desire for a return to normalised relations are economic, political and strategic interests.
Sunday 12/08/2018
History to the rescue. Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Enzo Milanesi (R) visits the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, on August 5.  (AFP)
History to the rescue. Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Enzo Milanesi (R) visits the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, on August 5. (AFP)

CAIRO - Egypt’s relations with Italy may be returning to their usual track after the government in Rome expressed interest in expanding cooperation with Cairo.

Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi visited Cairo on August 5, the such trip first by such a high-ranking Italian diplomat since 2016. He met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli.

Relations between Cairo and Rome went from full cooperation to common mistrust after an Italian researcher was found dead near Cairo in February 2016.

Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old Cambridge University doctoral student who was researching Egypt’s labour unions, had disappeared a few days before his body was found on a road near Cairo. Regeni’s body showed signs of torture.

Egyptian authorities blamed the death on a criminal gang whose members were subsequently killed by police. However, many in Italy refused to believe the government line, accusing Egyptian authorities of a cover-up. Italy recalled its ambassador from Cairo and only allowed him to return after a year-and-a-half.

Sisi told Milanesi on August 5 that Cairo was committed to uncovering the truth behind Regeni’s death. Egypt’s judiciary, he added, would cooperate with Italian authorities to find those responsible for the killing of the Italian researcher.

There is a strong desire in both Cairo and Rome for relations between them to return to normal, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said.

“Both states are important for stability in the Mediterranean region,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said. “We have discussed the expansion of cooperation in all fields.”

Behind the renewed desire for a return to normalised relations are economic, political and strategic interests, analysts said.

Italy remains Egypt’s most important trading partner in the European Union, with trade between the two countries totalling $5.5 billion last year. Italian investments in Egypt amounted to $5 billion. Italian company Eni is easily the most important foreign player in Egypt’s energy sector because of its involvement with the off-shore Zohr gas field.

Apart from the case of the Italian researcher, discussions between Milanesi and Egyptian officials dwelt on illegal immigration, counterterrorism and Libya.

Italy is trying to address an unending flow of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Unrest in North African countries, including Libya, exacerbates the illegal immigration problem, which is why Rome is seeking to influence events in a way that serves its interests.

The new Italian government is composed mainly of the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right League (formerly the Northern League), which both campaigned on anti-immigration policies.

“Egypt is, in fact, a cornerstone of Europe’s strategy for stemming the illegal immigration tide,” said Saad al-Zunt, the head of local think-tank Strategic Studies Centre. “Cairo works hard to curb the flow of immigrants on the road to Europe by tightening supervision on its coasts.”

Cairo is hoping that new development and infrastructure projects, which will create millions of jobs for locals, could ensure that desperate Egyptians will not be tempted to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

In September 2016, about 240 Egyptian nationals and foreigners — most of them Africans — drowned in the Mediterranean as they tried to cross into Europe from Egypt.

Italy is also an important tourist market for Egypt. Before 2016 about 2 million Italian tourists visited Egypt’s resorts and tourist destinations every year.

Egyptian officials meeting the Italian foreign minister proposed other areas for further cooperation, including education, health and agriculture. Egypt wants Italy to be a gateway into Europe for its agricultural products. It also wants Rome to establish branches of its top universities in it.

Cairo and Rome have, however, divergent views on Libya, a headache for both capitals.

Italy is leading an international effort to convince other countries to back its view for a settlement in Libya. Unlike Egypt, France and many Arab states, Italy backs the government in Tripoli and opposes having parliamentary and presidential elections in Libya before the end of the year. Egypt supports the rival government in Tobruk and supports the Libyan National Army, which is led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Libya, analysts said, would continue to be a contentious issue between Cairo and Rome, one that could even torpedo understandings on other fronts between the two capitals.

Libyan researcher Sonosi Ismail said Egypt and Italy had completely divergent agendas on Libya.

“Egypt wants to protect its own borders and keep Islamists at bay, while Italy wants to ensure that energy supplies from Libya will not be interrupted, regardless of who is ruling the country,” Ismail said. “This is why the two countries can never agree [on Libya].”