Sisi Is Too Scared of His Own Police to Care That Italy Recalled Its Ambassador
Egypt lost a close ally when Italy's envoy to Cairo was recalled Friday, but Sisi is busy prioritizing internal affairs.
On January 25, the five-year anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, 28-year-old Italian student Giulio Regeni left his Cairo apartment to meet some friends. He never came home. It took Egypt until Feb. 3 to announce they had found his tortured, lifeless body tossed in a ditch on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital.
Over the next two-and-a-half months, Egyptian and Italian officials sparred over the cause of his death and the validity of Cairo’s investigation into it. First, Egyptian officials said it was a car accident, then a gang attack. Italian authorities insisted his death came at the hands of Egyptian security services. In February, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told Foreign Policy it was “utterly confounding” that Italy would suggest Egyptian security services may have been behind Regeni’s murder.
This week, Egypt sent a delegation to Rome to try to reach a conclusion on how to proceed in the investigation, which has been held up by Cairo’s unwillingness to hand over Regeni’s phone records or name a suspect in the case.
The talks clearly didn’t end well. On Friday afternoon, Rome recalled Maurizio Massari, the Italian ambassador to Egypt.
In a statement announcing the news, the Italian foreign ministry said Massari would return to Rome to discuss how “to ascertain the truth about the barbaric murder of Giulio Regeni.”
Massari’s recall is just the latest shoe to drop in a disastrous few months for Egypt’s external relations. In September, Egyptian security forces accidentally bombed a group of Mexican tourists, killing 12. Less than two months later, the Islamic State took credit for the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, a crash that killed all 224 people on board.
Eric Trager, an Egypt expert and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Foreign Policy that Massari’s return to Rome will hit Cairo hard, because the Italian diplomat has been a “real advocate for engagement with and investment in Egypt.” An Italian firm, Eni, is leading the development of Cairo’s huge offshore natural-gas discoveries, crucial to Egypt’s economic fortunes.
“By allowing the crisis to spiral out of control in this way, Cairo has lost more than just Italy’s ambassador,” he said. “It’s lost a friend.”
Egypt’s willingness to sacrifice its relationship with a key diplomatic and economic ally like Italy underscores just how insecure Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is at home. For the former defense minister to publicly confront or accuse the police of carrying out the brutal killing, which Trager said was “in all likelihood done by security services,” would mean risking pushback from the cops, who the unstable president would need to defend him in the event there is another mass uprising. Sisi came to power after a public upheaval removed the democratically-elected Mohammed Morsi in 2013.
“This is a really autocratic government with a primary goal of surviving, and where the risk of falling is death,” Trager said. “They’re going to look very inward.”
Egypt’s foreign minister denied that security services were behind the grisly killing when he met with FP earlier this year. The Egyptian embassy did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Regeni’s disappearance and Sisi’s denials that his security services had anything to do with the Italian’s death coincided with a massive crackdown within Egypt on journalists and activists who documented incidents of disappearance and torture. Regeni himself was a part-time writer who, before his murder, used a pseudonym to publish stories on Egyptian workers’ rights in an Italian newspaper. Trager said that Egypt then tried to group Regeni’s death into their repeated claims that Egypt has been targeted for criticism by the international community and “held to a higher standard” than other countries, especially in regards to its fight against terrorism.
That shone through, he said, when Egyptians suggested it was suspicious that Regeni’s body turned up the same week that a delegation of Italian businesspeople visited Cairo.
“One part of the government will be offering one conspiracy theory and the others offering another,” Trager said. “Egypt is a very inefficient autocratic state. It can’t even get its conspiracy theories straight.”
Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images