We are not living among “normal” countries at the moment, and we are not living in “normal” times. According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iran is not a “normal nation.” It is rather a target for a campaign of economic assassination, or a literal target in a war that would send even more soldiers into the Middle East.
Egypt is also not a normal nation under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, where the former Islamist president Mohammed Morsi died in prison after being neglected and denied medical care. Nor is Italy a normal nation: if it were not for Giulio Regeni, who was tortured and killed by Egyptian security forces in Cairo in 2016, we would be very good friends with General el-Sisi. In fact, we’ve been on good terms with him for a long time, in spite of the thousands of opposition sympathizers thrown in prison and the forced disappearances which continue to happen. It’s a relationship worth $6 billion a year in trade, including the enormous ENI-managed Zhor offshore gas field and arms sales that are continuing apace.
Other countries are even better friends to the Egyptian regime, as they can display their friendship at the official level, while we are still sending ghostly figures to Cairo to ask for justice for Regeni: the Americans, the Russians, the French. El-Sisi is “a fantastic guy” according to Donald Trump, who welcomed the general at the White House in April and approved military aid to Egypt worth $1.4 billion.
At the same time, the United States is annoyed by the fact that el-Sisi is also a friend of Putin’s, from whom he wants to buy $2 billion worth of Sukhoi fighter planes. As for Macron, he has approved a $1 billion credit line from a French development agency in exchange for substantial arms purchases by Egypt.
Everyone—including us Italians—wants to get in on Egypt’s Vision 2030 plan, involving investments of over $45 billion. Indeed, who would be so stupid as to want to make Egypt their enemy, with its beautiful beaches on the Red Sea, the setting for the endless games of beach soccer which have invaded all our TV commercials?
Egypt, the most populous nation in the Arab world, is of strategic importance for the US and the West because of its peace treaty with Israel and its control over the Suez Canal, vital for global trade and for the American military apparatus.
In this “normal” nation, a friend of Israel which is keeping the Occupied Palestinian Territories in check, Mohammed Morsi died suddenly in court, the first democratically elected president in the history of the country, who was serving a life sentence after his death sentence was overturned on appeal. Morsi had been imprisoned from July 3, 2013, when el-Sisi deposed him by the force of tanks in the streets, with a death toll of at least 1,000, to stifle protests by Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
Morsi had an unusual political trajectory: he wasn’t supposed to be the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood who would succeed Mubarak after the 2011 revolt. One should note the very different “treatment” reserved for Mubarak himself, the “Pharaoh” against whom the Egyptian Arab Spring rose up, and who is now alive and well, free and almost rehabilitated together with his powerful sons. Morsi, a chemical engineer who had completed his PhD in the United States, was chosen after the businessman Khairat el-Shater dropped out, and then won the presidential elections against Ahmed Shafiq, a man of the former regime, by a tiny margin.
He was a leader who was unable to get a grip on the country’s problems—although he was in office for little more than a year. He cultivated deadly ties with the jihadists in the Sinai and tried to overcome the economic difficulties (many resulting from the IMF-approved measures) and the obstacles set up by the power structures of the old regime by granting himself special powers.
He was swept away by a street protest movement, but first and foremost by a military coup. It’s interesting to watch the videos, recorded in the days before the coup, of interviews with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis who were welcomed at the Italian embassy in a rather unusual meeting. One could see that the Salafis—quite a bit more fundamentalist—were already distancing themselves from Morsi, and would later support el-Sisi.
As opposed to Erdogan’s jeremiads, the secular world and the international community reacted to the Egyptian coup with some embarrassment, but also with a sigh of relief, coming both from the West and, most importantly, from the Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, who had everything to fear from the Muslim Brotherhood’s destabilizing and “too democratic” version of political Islam, an organization founded by the Egyptian al-Banna in the 1920s.
In addition to the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, this marked the other decisive rift in the Muslim world, one which is still dividing the region: for instance in Libya, where Egypt and the Gulf monarchies are supporting General Khalifa Haftar against the Tripoli Islamists who are backing Sarraj.
There can be no doubt that Pompeo explained all of this to Salvini, who is himself pro-Israel and anti-Iran, and thus a perfect figure to pose as a “sovereignist” while obeying American orders whenever they need to use Italian military bases in a war against Tehran.
One of the few secular figures who spoke up against the coup in 2013 was the writer Orhan Pamuk from Istanbul, who told the Suddeutsche Zeitung at the time that Western governments “betrayed their own values.” Pamuk said, “Western values that have ideals such as democracy and human rights either exist or they are surrendered to political or economic calculations.” He added that el-Sisi’s coup reminded him of Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile, when another mutinous general with US support removed the democratically elected Allende from power.
We are lucky, however: since then, we have all become wiser to the ways of the world, and we know that there’s no such thing as “normal nations” at all.