Egypt, Italy and the Regeni tragedy

Ahmed El-Sayed Al-Naggar
Wednesday 24 Feb 2016

Egypt's booming relations with Italy will be harmed as a result of the murder of Giulio Regeni

Italian researcher Giulio Regeni was killed in a tragic, horrific and shocking way to any human conscience. The Italian people deserve from Egypt and its hospitable people the warmest condolences for the painful and saddening death.

This incident came at a time when Egyptian-Italian relations are flourishing, especially in light of similar, or identical, stances on several regional and international issues, as well as mutual cooperation between the two countries.

On the level of the public, this incident aroused real pain and sweeping sympathy in Italy and Egypt for this betrayed youth.

The deceased was a youthful Cambridge PhD student conducting research on the economic situation and independent trade unions in Egypt. These unions were one of the developments accomplished in the last years of Mubarak’s era and were consolidated after the revolution before being involved in much controversy recently.

Two days before the deceased youth’s corpse was found, Italian officials were visiting Egypt. Al-Ahram Establishment hosted two of these visits: the first was of a joint delegation from two Italian universities and the Italian Labour Union, seeking ways of cooperation with the Al-Ahram Establishment and its economic, educational and touristic subsidiaries.

The second was by great Italian novelist Roberto Pazzi, who was the guest of Al-Ahram Civilisations Portal during a symposium. This was a fantastic expression of the cultural interactivity between the two countries in discussing his works. One of his recently translated novels was titled “Searching for the Emperor,” and another one awaiting translation titled “The Water Room”, which tells the story of the escape of Caesarion, Cleopatra’s and Julius Caesar’s son. 

Pazzi’s message: A mixture of pain and profound relations

After the painful incident, I received a message from the great Italian novelist imbued with a magical level of humanity and pain, and at the same time keenness that good relations between Egypt and his country continue after the culprits are found and held accountable.

The message really calls for meditation; for it expressed the pain of the Italian people for losing one of their sons tragically in a friendly country. On top of this, the deceased was an academic researcher and this provides any person with a kind of immunity emanating from the value of science, or so those in the scientific field think and expect such esteem and immunity from the state and society regarding their lives, freedom and scientific research.

But at the same time, the message reflects a state of transcendence over pain in order to uncover the culprits and hold them accountable and the continuance of the close relations between Cairo and Rome.

Towards this nobleness in viewing the incident from one of the icons on the Italian side, Egypt has to complete its investigations with the utmost degree of professionalism, impartiality, transparency and respect regarding human life and worth.

Egypt and Italy have had a long history of strong relations. When the Roman state emerged, Egypt was already ancient, preceding Rome as a state by about 2,000 years and as a civilisation by 5,000 years. This granted Egypt the ability to set the example and influence everything on the other side of the Mediterranean.

There were the religious legends, novels and literary works in general and the Ancient Egyptian medical and scientific achievements which profoundly affected the makeup and development of the civilisations to the north of the Mediterranean.

Funnily enough, the Ancient Egyptian female deity "Iset," whom we call Isis, was worshipped in Italy for five centuries after the birth of Christianity, even though its worship had ended in Egypt hundreds of years before when Egyptians converted to Orthodox Christianity.

Egypt was also influenced by the other side of the Mediterranean in an extended civilisation, cultural and political interaction.

As for modern times, relations have been characterised by profundity, vitality and popular communication that surpasses formal relations and sometimes moves in an opposite direction.

Perhaps the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Italians to Egypt fleeing Mussolini’s measures and the ravages of WWII is one of the events that proves the level of popular relations, especially since the immigration occurred at a time when the Egyptian state was with the Allies, and thus in confrontation with the Italian state, which constituted the second pole in the Axis powers after Nazi Germany.

Currently, there is a high degree of consensus concerning regional and international issues, as well as profound mutual relations in the fields of politics and economy, which are matters that deserve follow-up. Although what is essential in the Regeni tragedy is the human and security dimension, which are above everything else.

The two countries’ stances on Libya also see a high degree of consensus, as both countries are affected by what is happening in Libya and work together on supporting the efforts of building the Libyan state and preventing its fall into the hands of terrorists.

Egypt has a direct interest in the stability and unity of the Libyan state, both to safeguard the brother Libyan people and ensure the safety of its western borders.

Italy is also keen on seeing a stable Libyan state in order to stem the flow of illegal immigration.

However, these aims of seeing a stable Libya requires exerting more efforts towards facilitating the arming of the Libyan army and abolishing the international resolution preventing this.

This should be done in order to enable this army to confront the armed to the teeth terrorist groups as a mechanism to regain the unity of the state’s provinces and prevent its transformation into a launch base threatening the south and north Mediterranean countries.

Egyptian-Italian economic relations

Official statements point out that Italy is the most important market for Egyptian exports.

Egyptian exports to Italy valued around 2675 million dollars in 2013, which is equivalent to 9.3 percent of the total value of Egyptian commodity exports in that year.

Egyptian imports from Italy amounted to 3481 million dollars, constituting about 5.4 percent of the total Egyptian commodity imports in the aforementioned year.

Italy is considered the fourth important supplier of commodities to Egypt after China, Germany and the USA.

The geographical proximity between the two countries and the low transport fees and insurance are significant factors that facilitate commodity trade between Egypt and Italy.

Given that consuming imported commodities coming from any country is the people’s choice, the external trade interests network in any country requires a good image of that country among other states and peoples. It is right that quality and price considerations are the main factors in the external promotion for any commodity. However, the overall image regarding the state forms either an assisting or hindering factor in this respect.

As for direct investments in Egypt, Italy is among the medium countries in this regard.

According to the Egyptian Central Bank statements in its monthly statistical bulletin, Italian direct investment flow in Egypt was 246.5, 193.3, 75.1, 16.8 and 37.1 million dollars in the fiscal years 2010/2011, 2011/2012, 2012/2013, 2013/2014, 2014/2015 respectively.

The value of Italian direct investments in Egypt will be much higher if the years that witnessed Italian companies buying Egyptian companies, which were to be privatised, were added. The whole matter was construed as Italian direct investments despite the fact that there was no new investment asset created, just monetary flows due to selling an already existing asset.

The most prominent example in this respect was in the year 2006/2007, where the value of Italian direct investments to Egypt were $1631.4 million when an Italian company bought one of the Egyptian cement companies.

During the Sharm El-Sheikh Economic Conference in March last year, the Italian Eni company signed a preliminary contract for investing $5 billion for natural gas exploration in Egyptian waters in the Mediterranean Sea and in the Western Desert, Delta and Sinai. The biggest Egyptian natural gas field was discovered in the Mediterranean Sea through this company, which is working seriously in the concession areas. It is certain that the investments linked to this discovery will raise the volume of Italian direct investments in Egypt.

On another scale, there is a significant part of the Italian trade with non-European countries, especially with Asia, Arab Asian countries, Iran, Eastern and Southern Africa, that pass through the Suez Canal and is considered among Egyptian service exports (transport services) to Italy.

As for the other important relations between Egypt and Italy, they are concerned with tourism.

 Italian tourists were at the top of the list of nationalities visiting Egypt with the aim of tourism before the Russian tourists took the lead several years ago. However, Italian tourists remain in the second position and rarely are they relegated to the third.

This kind of economic relation, or Egyptian touristic services exports to Italy, is largely affected with the general image in that Mediterranean country. Despite the fact that geographical proximity and that the low travel expenses between the two countries help low-expense tourism, impressions are still influential, especially when it concerns the safety of Italians visiting

Egypt will be harmed by the murder of Giulio Regeni on all levels. The best that Egypt can do regarding this tragic crime is hold the culprits accountable and conduct a fair retribution.

Even if this impartial investigation and cooperation with the Italian side does not change the friendly Italian people’s pain over a brutally-executed crime, it will help in building confidence in showing that the Egyptian state is really concerned with its visitors’ security and safety.

The writer is Chairman of the Board of Al-Ahram Establishment.

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