Analysis. In short, little has changed: Italy has no intention of making a break with Egypt. Quite the opposite, business is booming.

With a handshake, Meloni reverses tough talk on Egypt, prioritizing commerce

With a handshake and a private conversation lasting more than an hour, Egypt’s coup-installed president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni marked two firsts: he is the first foreign head of state to meet with the new prime minister in a visit to his country; and, seven years and a half after the murder of Giulio Regeni, she is the first Italian premier to set foot on Egyptian soil.

An endless carousel of ministers have gone to Cairo (from Di Maio to Salvini), but Meloni is the first prime minister to visit Egypt since February 3, 2016, when the Italian researcher’s mangled body was found dumped along the Cairo-Alexandria highway.

It is more a symbolic issue than one of real substance: Rome has never interrupted commercial relations (€3.7 billion in trade in 2020, €2.1 billion between January and June 2021, €1.8 billion between January and June 2022) and military relations with Egypt – however, that handshake is still a jarring sight.

This is because it goes directly against the line she herself took as leader of Fratelli d’Italia. For example, on January 26, 2019, she tweeted: “After three years, the Italian people demand the right to know the truth and who is responsible for the kidnapping, torture and murder of one of our compatriots. Enough omertà: Italy demands immediate answers.”

According to a note from Palazzo Chigi, in Monday’s head-to-head with al-Sisi, Meloni supposedly stressed “Italy’s strong focus on the cases of Giulio Regeni and Patrick Zaki.” No other details, and the formula is the standard one we’ve learned by heart already. It also doesn’t fit very well with the real topics of the meeting: “Energy supply, renewable sources, climate crisis and immigration”.

In short, little has changed: Italy has no intention of making a break with Egypt. Quite the opposite, business is booming. From the giant submarine gas fields, Noor and Zohr, managed by ENI, to the sale of frigates, warplanes, and light weapons for the armory of the Egyptian police. Al-Sisi is perfectly aware of this and is not conceding anything at all; in his view, the Regeni case has been closed for years.

He went even further this time, saying he hoped Meloni’s visit would provide an impulse for an increase in bilateral relations. In the end, the latter are based on two elements: the fight against immigration and terrorism and Egypt’s energy wealth. According to the Egyptian president’s spokesman, Bassam Radi, Meloni and al-Sisi also discussed joint cooperation in the field of energy security, “one of the most important partnership paths between the two parties in recent years,” with the possibility of an underwater electric cable connecting the two countries.

That is actually the basis for the fallacious Western narrative that the Egyptian regime is a source of stability in a region in the grip of chaos. It’s paradoxical that one would consider it a source of stability when it has led 60% of its population to fall below or just above the poverty line and institutionalized the repression of all critical voices. Proof of this is being broadcast live these days from the COP27: while the hundred or so preemptive arrests in Cairo are not that visible, the censorship of the internet at the COP27 certainly is.

It’s impossible to reach the websites of NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty (even though both are present at the conference; this must be just in case it occurs to anyone to take a look at their reports on Egypt) and those of independent press agencies (Mada Masr) or “enemy” ones such as Al Jazeera. According to Citizen Lab, it was the Canadian company Sandvine that supplied the technology necessary for these “targeted” blocks. In total, according to HRW, “Egyptian authorities have blocked access to about 700 websites, including independent news media and civil society groups. This severely restricts access to information that needs to be discussed, including environmental and human rights issues.”

These practices are consistent with the guidelines that were displayed until recently on the website of the Egyptian presidency, according to the Middle East Monitor: cartoons or masks of heads of state and government are banned, as well as any mockery of the UN or member states; criticism that is “contrary to decency”  is banned; there is an obligation to submit a notification of any protest 48 hours in advance, while the green light from the security services is still needed and protests can only take place in dedicated areas. This explains the sparse protests on Monday, with activists dressed as cows and little else.

Much more happened elsewhere. On Monday, three Egyptian journalists began a hunger strike in solidarity with Alaa Abdel Fattah, Egypt’s most well-known political prisoner, who after 215 days of fasting decided to give up water as well. Eman Ouf, Mona Selim (Alaa’s sister) and Racha Azab started the protest while a sit-in was being organized at the Egyptian journalists’ union, calling for “the immediate release of Abdel Fattah and all political prisoners.”

Alaa’s other sister, Sana’a, arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday to highlight the situation of her brother, within the sight of Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister of the UK, of which Alaa has been a citizen since last year.

On Sunday, Sunak, in a letter to Seif, had stressed London’s commitment to the release of her brother Alaa. On Monday he announced he would have a bilateral meeting with al-Sisi, and he is reported to have conveyed “the UK government’s deep concern on this issue” to the Egyptian president, and the hope of “to see this resolved as soon as possible.”

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