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Cairo, Rome carefully repair relations two years after researcher's murder

The Italian foreign minister’s recent visit to Egypt revived diplomatic relations between Cairo and Rome following the long, heated dispute over the slaying of Italian postgraduate student Giulio Regeni.

CAIRO — Heralding remarkable developments in Italian-Egyptian relations, Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi arrived Aug. 4 in Cairo, marking the first visit of an Italian foreign minister to Egypt since 2015. Relations have been tense for more than two years following the 2016 murder of Italian postgraduate researcher Giulio Regeni in Egypt.

Observers believe this visit promotes Italian-Egyptian relations and indicates the two countries have overcome their disputes in the aftermath of Regeni’s murder. Milanesi's trip came on the heels of a July 18 visit to Cairo by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, during which he met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and General Intelligence Director Abbas Kamel.

Milanesi met Aug. 5 with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, at the Foreign Ministry for a round of political deliberations. Afterward, during a joint press conference, the two officials talked about several common issues, primarily their concern over the Libyan civil war and illegal migration from many countries, in addition to the latest developments in Regeni’s murder investigation. Earlier, Milanesi also met with Sisi.

Italian-Egyptian relations went downhill after Regeni's body was found Feb. 3, 2016, bearing signs of intense torture. Regeni had disappeared nine days earlier, on the fifth anniversary of the January 25 Revolution. Cairo and Rome have always been allies in the Mediterranean area, and they have tight economic ties, but Italy recalled its ambassador in April for almost six months after the incident, citing a lack of progress on the inquiry.

Milanesi said at the press conference last week that the important issues discussed were worth the visit. He noted, “I was happy to hear about the Egyptian government’s strong willingness to reach tangible results in the judicial investigations into Regeni’s murder. We are sure that justice will emerge from this painful case.” A joint investigation between Egyptian and Italian authorities is ongoing to find Regeni’s killers over two years after his murder.

Some reports claimed in 2016 that Egyptian that security forces were involved in Regeni’s death, which Egyptian authorities repeatedly denied. Regeni had been researching Egyptian trade unions, a sensitive topic in the country. Authorities later admitted the police had been investigating his activities for three days before he was killed, but said they let the matter go after determining he posed no threat.

Reuters has reported, however, that in 2016, intelligence and security sources told the news agency that "police had arrested Regeni outside a Cairo metro station on Jan. 25 … and then transferred him to a compound run by Homeland Security."

About a month ago, the Egyptian public prosecutor's office and its Italian counterpart issued a joint statement saying that as experts recently re-examined evidence in the case, they found unexplained gaps in the footage from underground metro station cameras. Now they are trying to restore the gaps — and discover why the footage was missing — using advanced technology.

​Bassam Radi, a spokesperson for the Egyptian presidency, told local channel DMC on Aug. 5, “There are positive developments, and we hope to reveal the identity of the criminals soon.” He said the countries are transparent in exchanging information and special developments in the case, and their political will to reveal the truth is strong.

Tarek Radwan, head of the Egyptian parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, told Al-Monitor, “I believe Egypt has overcome the ripples of Regeni’s murder.” He said Italian authorities have shown satisfaction with Egyptian investigations amid cooperation between both countries' prosecutors.

Radwan said Italian-Egyptian relations are growing in political and economic arenas. Rome and Cairo are cooperating to ban migrants from illegally crossing the Mediterranean, many from Libya, to Italy. The Egyptian Ministry of Interior and its Italian counterpart signed in September 2017 a security protocol under which Egypt committed to training African police cadres from 22 nations where illegal migration is rampant on the latest ways to counter the problem.

Egypt and Italy have much to gain from each other. According to an Egyptian Foreign Ministry statement issued Aug. 5, Italy is Egypt's No. 2 trade partner in Europe and No. 4 in the world, with trade exchange equaling 4.75 billion euros ($5.49 billion). Italy is also the biggest importer of Egyptian goods, at $1.8 billion in 2016-2017.

Italy also supports Egypt's endeavors to become a regional hub for energy exchange through drilling and natural gas discoveries by Eni S.p.A. of Rome. In 2015, Eni discovered the Zohr gas field, deemed the largest such field in the Mediterranean.

According to the Egyptian State Information Service, 1,052 Italian companies operate in Egypt in different fields, mainly gas, with investments of about $9 billion.

During his meeting with Sisi, Milanesi discussed the new Italian government’s intention to further develop relations and cement ties with Egypt. In June, a new Italian government made up of populist movements and radical rightists was formed. A few days later, Deputy Prime Minister Salvini reportedly praised Egyptian authorities for their cooperation in the investigation.

Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University, said the case still has deep repercussions for the countries’ relations, but the new rightist Italian government has expressed its desire to overcome them. Both countries want to improve economic relations, especially with the discovery of the Zohr gas field and the potential for additional discoveries in gas and oil.

As for Libya, Nafaa told Al-Monitor the crisis there is also pivotal for relations, as Italy is playing a key role in it. A political conflict is brewing between Italy and France over dominance in Libya. France launched an initiative to resolve Libya's political deadlock in May. Italy is preparing its own plan with the same goal.

Shoukry said Egypt supports all efforts to stabilize Libya.

Nafaa added that Italy wants Egypt’s support because of the latter's influence in Libya with Gen. Khalifa Hifter, head of the Libyan National Army.

Nafaa noted that the joint statements released after the visit were mostly optimistic, but they don't necessarily reflect the reality of the talks and don't mean the Regeni crisis has ended. The Italian public feels strongly and "won't give up on Regeni’s case — and that will pressure the regime," Nafaa said. "The issue might not remain the top priority, but it will not be extinguished.”

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