Almost a year and half had passed since Italy recalled its ambassador to Cairo over the latter’s reported lack of cooperation in the investigation of the torture and murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in what seemed to be a long-standing diplomatic standoff. Sooner than expected, however, on September 14 to be precise, a new ambassador took up his position in Cairo. The decision came as quite a surprise, pleasant for some and alarming for others and while it was seen by Rome as a political necessity, it was frowned upon by parties that linked reconciliation with the full truth.
Commenting on the appointment of a new ambassador to Cairo before the completion of investigation on the Regeni case, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said that it was not practical for the deadlock to last longer. "It's impossible for countries that are in front of each other not to have high-level political and diplomatic relations," he addressed members of the foreign committees of both houses of the Italian parliament.
“Egypt is an inextricable partner of Italy, like Italy is an inextricable partner of Egypt.” Alfano stressed that the appointment of a new ambassador does mean the Italian government would give up on Regeni. He, however, admitted in the same address that Regeni’s death created dealt a major blow to bilateral relations between Egypt and Italy.
Regeni's parents, on the other hand, viewed such a step as a form of abandonment on the part of the Italian state. “It's only when we know the truth about who killed Giulio and why, when his torturers and all their accomplices are handed over to us, alive, that the ambassador can return to Cairo without trampling on our dignity,” they said in a statement.
Secretary General of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Egyptian House of Representatives Tarek al-Khouly said that the appointment of a new ambassador indicates that Italy has finally realized that its relations with Egypt have been subject to a conspiracy. “This was not only demonstrated by the murder of Giulio Regeni, but also by the bombing that targeted the Italian consulate in Cairo.” he said, in reference to the attack that took place in June 2011. Khouly added that Italy was one of the states that supported Egypt following the June 30 protests, hinting at the possible involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Khouly, the tension between Egypt and Italy lasted for longer than it was supposed to because the Regeni case was blown out of proportion by several parties inside both Italy and Egypt. “But Italy was also wise enough to know that it is better to separate between diplomatic relations and the progress of investigations in Regeni’s case and members of our committee conveyed this to several Italian MPs.”
Ambassador and former Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Haridi argued that three main reasons led to the return of the Italian ambassador to Cairo. “First, Italy must be satisfied with what Egypt has done so far in the Regeni investigations and realizes that Egypt is doing its best to reach the truth,” he said. “Second, the growing threat of terrorism in Libya and the impossibility of dealing with this threat without cooperation with Egypt owing to its influence in Libya.” The third reason, Haridi explained, is the problem of illegal immigration, which preoccupies Europe in general and Italy in particular and in which Egypt’s cooperation is also indispensable. “In short, common interests between Egypt and Italy are much more important than any passing crisis,” he said. Kamel Abdullah, expert on Libyan affairs at al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, also said that Italy was concerned to see France starting to get involved in Libya. “Restoring relations with Egypt was then the way to protect its interests in Libya,” he said. Secretary General of the Arab Investors Union Gamal Bayoumi, noted that other interests are also involved between the two countries. “Italy is Egypt’s top trade partner in the EU and Italian tourists, who contribute a lot to Egypt’s tourism industry, are expected to come back after the crisis is over,” he said.
According to Jeremy Costa, the Italian government made a grave political mistake or “disaster” as he puts it by sending a new ambassador to Egypt. “Rome’s decision is seen to be largely (if not entirely) motivated by external, mostly economic factors, despite the foreign minister’s assertion that the decision was made to allow for closer collaboration on investigations into Regeni’s murder,” he wrote.
Costa saw economic interests between Egypt and Italy as the main reason for resuming ties and particularly mentioned the case of the giant oil and gas company Eni, currently drilling for natural gas off the Egyptian coast, and the billions of dollars such operations are expected to yield. This, Costa argued, is a bound to significantly harm the Italian government. “Perceptions that the decision is another example of the Italian government putting self-interest before the desires of the Italian people could prove to be extremely damaging for Gentiloni’s Democratic Party,” he explained. According to Costa, the Italian government not only let down it people when it gave up on Regeni’s case, but also risked having its image tarnished in front of the International Community. “The Italian government has given up a golden opportunity to not only show its people that it represents their best interests, but also to lead an international condemnation of human rights abuses in Egypt and around the world. By choosing to instead resume relations with Cairo, it may suffer the political consequences it desperately intended to avoid.”