On April 8, the Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni recalled his Ambassador to Egypt. The decision came on the heels of a meeting held in Rome with an Egyptian delegation on the investigation into the murder of Giulio Regeni, the Italian PhD student whose tortured corpse was found in Cairo on February 3. Burns and cuts scarred his body. His mother stated that when she saw his dead body, she saw "all the world's evil" on his face. It is strongly suspected that Egyptian security services may have tortured and killed him. In 2015 alone, 625 cases of torture and 1,411 cases of forced disappearances were documented in the country.
What does the unexpected dip in Italian-Egyptian diplomatic relations imply for the stability of President al-Sisi?
In fact, right after the identification of Giulio Regeni's lifeless body, the Italian government seemed ready to deal with the matter practically. Giulio's case embarrassingly surfaced amidst the final explorations of the supergiant Zohr offshore gas field that had been discovered by Italian oil company Eni last year, and which is expected to significantly increase business ties between Egypt and Italy. However, amid exceptional mobilization by Italian and international activists and scholars, Rome expected -- at the very least -- an admission that the Egyptian security services had been involved.
Behind these considerations lay the perennial dilemma for Western powers dealing with authoritarian regimes in the Middle East: the calculation that -- no matter how brutal their abuse on populations or flagrant their violations of human rights -- there is a need to support friendly dictators as long as they guarantee (Western) security and stability, thwart terror groups and popular uprisings, and stem the flow of migrants to Western shores. This view was demonstrated in the Italian parliament's discussion of the Regeni case, when MPs of two right-wing parties, Lega Nord and Fratelli d'Italia left the session, arguing: "Egypt is our ally."
Ironically, the brutalized corpse of Giulio Regeni has forced the entire world to acknowledge the everyday reality of Egyptian prisons and regime impunity.
In fact, Arab authoritarian leaders are largely responsible for producing the very conditions in which all three of the aforementioned phenomena proliferate. Economic mismanagement has created and fostered unemployment and poverty. Brutal repression has destroyed the political opposition and, together, these developments have exacerbated the migration of people from the civic space to either the religious space (which may be politicized and/or violent) or a foreign country.
Egyptian President al-Sisi is not an exception. In his arrogance and belief that the West considers him to be an indispensable pillar of stability, al-Sisi appears to have been overconfident that the Regeni case was "not going to affect Italian-Egyptian relations," as he put it. He went on to blame Rome for "politicizing the matter" after Ambassador Massari was recalled from Cairo. What al-Sisi dramatically overlooks is that since February 3, this case has been an inherently political issue (Giulio disappeared on January 25, the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution), and that the truth about Giulio will be essential.
Even in an age of political expediency and more complex geopolitics, there are lies that simply cannot be swept under the carpet. However, the Egyptian regime has engaged in a global display of its own ineptitude, immorality and irresponsibility -- and in the process, risks compromising key alliances.
Over the past few weeks, Egyptians officially released several different and contradictory "truths" on the murder of Regeni. First, they said Giulio died in a car accident -- his body was found alongside the highway connecting Cairo and Alexandria. Later, they stated his murder was connected to a love affair. And then they insinuated that Giulio was tortured and killed by a "gang specialized in kidnapping foreigners." This story was plainly absurd, and Egyptian security services went on to claim that all five of the suspected kidnappers had been killed in a shootout with the police, leaving a conveniently closed case for investigators and denying the alleged kidnappers any chance to defend themselves. The Egyptian state nonchalantly deprived other families of their dear ones, without reason nor a credible explanation.
By fabricating surreal and ridiculous versions of the "truth," the Egyptian regime has embarrassed even those who usually indulge its flagrant brutality, such as the current Italian government.
Last but not least, Italian authorities have discovered that Egypt has spied on their investigators during the eight weeks they spent in Cairo trying to shed light on the disgraceful murder of Giulio. There have been multiple attempts to divert their enquiries and obstruct their work. By fabricating surreal and ridiculous versions of the "truth," the Egyptian regime has embarrassed even those who usually indulge its flagrant brutality, such as the current Italian government. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has been one of the most enthusiastic champions of President al-Sisi in his "fight against terror," ignoring the fact that his counter-terror strategy has mostly amounted to repressing and randomly brutalizing actual and imagined opponents of his regime, including liberal and leftist activists.
The Egyptian regime has dramatically underestimated Italian and European persistence. Particularly in Italy and the UK, civil society has been incredibly vocal. More than 10,000 citizens signed a petition pushing the government to demand more thorough investigations into Giulio's murder. Italy may now even call for EU sanctions against Egypt if al-Sisi does not come forth with a credible response.
In line with the need to project an image of power to his domestic and international detractors, al-Sisi has reacted by turning attention to his major patron-ally, Saudi Arabia. In an official meeting with King Salman, the Egyptian president announced the construction of a bridge over the Red Sea, connecting the two countries. In a theatrical move, al-Sisi gave two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia as a sign of "gratitude." The announcement ramped up propaganda on new Saudi-Egyptian projects and investments.
This show was meant to demonstrate that Egypt is prepared to compensate for the potential loss of Italian contracts -- Italy being Egypt's third commercial partner, after the U.S. and Germany. However, the move infuriated Egyptian streets. Further, while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have become major allies of al-Sisi, the drop in oil prices and the financial shortcomings Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are facing domestically indicate a scaling back of funding to Egypt.
Beyond the rosy picture General al-Sisi is trying to project around Egypt's stability and economic growth, the country is undergoing a major security and financial breakdown. Internal rivalries within the regime itself are rising to the surface, jeopardizing stability. Al-Sisi may actually have more enemies inside his establishment than outside the country he rules. Moreover, Egyptian and international observers increasingly suggest there may be another revolution in the country in reaction to the unbearable wave of repression and state dysfunction.
Against this backdrop, even external allies may find the traditional 'support-dictators-in-exchange-for-security' policy inadequate in dealing with the current regional problems. Media commentators and U.S. senators are increasingly wondering whether it is worth it for Washington to spend $1.3 billion a year of taxpayers' money in military aid to Egypt, without getting much in return, not even a slight improvement with regards to human rights. While it seems unlikely that the U.S. will scale back its relationship with Egypt in the immediate future, Cairo may eventually witness increasing pressure with the policy of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East.
As the Middle East is falling apart, ravaged by civil wars and political turmoil, Western citizens are also paying the price of the long-standing policy of supporting illiberal, corrupt powers.
Even realpolitik pundits in the West may start realizing that the narrow idea that dictatorial friends can provide stability is a chimera. This assumption is still widespread amongst world leaders: David Cameron, for instance, recently explained that, although undeniably poor in its human rights records, the Saudi alliance helps to safeguard the security of UK citizens. What he did not say is that this happens at the expense of Saudi citizens' security -- which is growing disappointed with the royal family and may eventually turn Saudi Arabia into the newest pocket of instability in the Gulf.
Incidentally, as the Middle East is falling apart, ravaged by civil wars and political turmoil, Western citizens are also paying the price of the long-standing policy of supporting illiberal, corrupt powers.
Europe is facing an unexpected wave of terrorism, carried out by European Muslim extremists that have established bridges between Europe and the Middle East, capitalizing and taking advantage of historical resentment of Western domination, exploitation, and devastation of the Muslim world. There is a large Middle Eastern population, frustrated and brutalized by their regimes (and external invasions), that for decades has been considering Western governments as the external legitimizers of their largely illegitimate rulers.
Amidst current social and ideological tensions, this deep-rooted resentment can be easily exploited by terror groups in order to expand their base amongst disillusioned Muslims living in states of terror and elite impunity -- just like in Egypt. Ironically, the brutalized corpse of Giulio Regeni has forced the entire world to acknowledge the everyday reality of Egyptian prisons and regime impunity.
Recalling the Ambassador in Rome is a good start. But Italy, and other EU governments, should now put more pressure on Egypt on the frequent cases of extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture. This would be key a message to the Egyptian people that Western governments are no longer ready to sell their lives for commercial contracts or short-term security agreements. This is not merely the right thing to do, it is also true realpolitik, at a time when we can no longer afford to continue enabling the very dictators whose repression, abuse of power and incompetence have fueled the wars, terrorism and refugee flows that the entire world seems so unprepared to cope with.