POINT OF VIEW Egypt: sand, blood and politics


A country is often defined by its circumstances. From the Arab Spring onwards, the image of Egypt is in constant flux.

For a very long time, Egypt was Italy’s best partner on the opposite shores of the Mediterranean. The regime presided over by President Hosni Mubarak had the trappings of an oasis of comparatively stable moderation when viewed against the rest of the Arab world. Egypt was at peace, its security was guaranteed and its general investment climate was on the whole very favourable. What’s more, the country was almost entirely dependent on foreign nations. Italy played a major role concerning all of Egypt’s main sources of income: oil revenue (a sector in which ENI played a major part), shipments travelling through the Suez Canal (often headed towards Italian ports) and finally tourism, which provided a constant influx of highly-valued foreign currency. To some extent, the latter ended up in the state’s coffers, but for the most part it trickled day by day into the pockets of millions of Egyptians, acting as a soothing balm for a situation that was rife with potential sources of tension. For Italians, who mainly viewed Egypt a vacation paradise, the country was therefore “good”, and all the better as the general outlook for the Islamic world began getting darker and more foreboding at every turn.

This, however, was a rather fanciful vision that was soon to be dispelled once the “Arab Spring” kicked off in Cairo, revealing the extreme levels of discontent that were smouldering under the surface of a seemingly contented country. The uprisings also revealed to the outside world the true extent of the violent repression brought to bear by a security apparatus that hinged on the activities of both the police and the secret services, backed by the armed forces when the need arose. At around the same time, bloody terrorist attacks orchestrated by extremist Islamic factions escalated, specifically intended to drastically reduce the revenue from tourism, and thus heighten the collective discomfort and popular discontent. At this time, and for the entire period of the Islamic Brotherhood’s dominance, Egypt thus became a “bad” country in the eyes of the Italian public, and this in spite of the support that had initially be granted to the Morsi government by many Western countries (with the US very much at the forefront of the effort).

Thus General al-Sisi’s coup d’état initially left us flabbergasted. In spite of being backed (and almost welcomed) by the more liberal forces in Egypt, it was clearly a hostile takeover, and therefore something very unacceptable (at least in theory) for Western democracies. The General, however, had the political acumen to seek an immediate electoral confirmation which would add legitimacy to his actions. Over a short period of time, he also managed to secure the backing of the great Al Ahzar University, the main point of reference for Sunni Islam, as well as support from the Christian Copt community (and thus, indirectly, from the Vatican). In this way, al-Sisi and the country of Egypt were quickly reintegrated among the “good guys”, notwithstanding the blatantly repressive approach still adopted in the country that was justified by security conditions that were at best precarious, particularly in the Sinai.

But the situation shifted once again after the barbarous murder of Giulio Regeni and the reticence later shown by Cairo in its collaboration with the Italian government and judicial authorities. Caught in the spires of a case that had human, judicial and even political overtones (all knotted together), the Italian government made a series of very serious mistakes by reacting emotionally and without proper consideration. The blunders included withdrawing the Italian ambassador from Cairo when a respected presence on location was clearly essential, and expecting the Egyptian police and magistrates to establish clear evidence within a timeframe that would have been totally unacceptable for any similar Italian authority. Meanwhile, the Italian mass media immediately began focusing on complicit behaviour at the highest levels, supposedly protecting the murderers, attacking Egypt while avoiding engaging in any inquiries as to who else might be to blame.

As far as the Arabs were concerned, everything was being carried out in such a way that they could not concede to any of the points of the dossier without losing face… and losing face is an unacceptable outcome in that corner of the world. Then again, it soon became very clear that the search for any possible culprits in Egypt had to come to terms with the fierce internecine conflicts among different sectors of the local security agencies, something that necessarily curtailed any access to the truth at that moment in time. In this apparently hostile climate, there was still suspicion as to whether al-Sisi could be, even indirectly, called to account for the murder, or whether he was just a victim of the actions of forces that were essential to the survival of his regime but over which he did not have complete control. Given the choice, Italian public opinion decided that one thing was for sure: just to be on the safe side, Egypt and its president were once again to be considered “villains”.

Is this how things still stand today? Of course not. Once rational assessments started to reassert themselves over emotions and gut reactions, the concerns of realpolitik, though perhaps not triumphant, started to be taken into account once more. Italy began to view Egypt’s condition in a more subtle light. Rome thus accepted that the regime in Cairo was under serious threat of a return of Islamic fundamentalism and that they were already fighting what amounts to a civil war against extremism in the Sinai. Thought was given to the fact that Egypt was still uninvolved in the migrant crises and had so far managed to avoid its coastline becoming a point of departure for new waves of desperate North Africans and Sub-Saharans. Italians came to realise how essential it was to keep the Suez Canal open, particularly with the Silk Road about to be given a new lease on life, something that we are very much hoping to exploit. We also had to take stock of the fact that the withdrawal of the Ambassador had had nothing but negative repercussions and hadn’t helped the investigation into Regeni’s death in any way.

Thus the decision was made to reinstate the Italian ambassador in Cairo, in the hope that by normalising relations even the murder enquiry could move ahead. This action has not led to a complete absolution for Egypt, which has not as yet happily re-joined the fold of the “good” countries. Of course, that classification is rather meaningless; no country is ever completely good or completely evil. A country is how it is, and how it is forced to be by the situation it finds itself in at any given time. Even a great and established democracy like the United States has not yet dismantled the horrors of Guantanamo and still sets limitations on its citizen’s personal freedom with its “Patriot Act” as soon as it feels threatened.

So can we say that Egypt is “good” or “bad”? Probably both, and at the same time.

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