“That’s what we will be working on, to follow the president’s instructions. We will try to complete all the phases by the end of 2018 or early 2019”, said Petroleum Minister Tarek El Molla with great fanfare. It was on February 1, at the inauguration of the first phase of developing Zohr, the giant offshore gas field near the Egyptian coast. Zohr is estimated to have a reserve of 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the largest in the Mediterranean.
A few minutes before, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had asked Molla to finish work on the field by the end of 2018. In fact, Zohr is one of the big businesses – likely the biggest – in Egypt today. It has already created more than 40,000 direct and indirect jobs in the development phase and should attract about $US 12 billion in investments. Zohr began its initial production with 350 million cubic feet per day and when development of the field will be complete, Egypt should save $US 2.5 billion on natural gas per year. ENI discovered and developed the field, investing in it about $US 12 billion dollars. Recently it sold 30% of its shares (worth $US 1.250 billion) to Russian Rosneft and 10% (worth $US 375 million) to the UK’s BP.
“You know why they wanted to compromise relations between Egypt and Italy?” President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked ENI’s CEO Claudio Descalzi at the Zohr inauguration ceremony. “So that we would not be here. [...] I will not forget the Regeni case and we will not stop until we will bring the perpetrators to justice”. For quite some time President al-Sisi has been repeating this statement to every ENI and Italian official, as if he were not the strongmen of Egypt, in apparent control of his country.
Some in Italy argue that we will obtain justice very soon. We should be close the truth – they say – because we somehow know the names of some officers who tortured and killed Giulio Regeni. Moreover, the Italian General Prosecutor Giuseppe Pignatone demonstrated that the “research activity” of the young graduate student was the primary reason for his torture. In Cairo Regeni was studying Egyptian labor unions, on behalf of Cambridge University.
However, this is something that has been known since the beginning of this tragedy. Italian prosecutors and Giampaolo Cantini, the newly appointed Italian Ambassador to Egypt (since last September) are bravely pressuring Egyptians authorities. Nevertheless, justice will be obtained only when the perpetrators are indicted and sentenced by an Egyptian court. This is justice. But this, I am afraid, will only happen if and when the Sisi military regime will fall.
The Regeni case will have no effect whatsoever on the campaign and final result of the upcoming Egyptian elections. Because no one in Egypt is interested in that case: certainly not those in power or the opposition, or the press or public opinion; and also because these elections are not going to be a real contest. By arresting and threatening all real contenders, the regime has already fixed the final outcome in favor of the incumbent.
All this considered, should Italy do business with Egypt? The answer is yes, despite the evident clash between morality and raison d’état. Last February Moscow revoked its 27- month ban imposed after the Islamic State blew up an airliner over the Sinai desert, killing 224 Russians. Still, in these two years and more of the ban, Vladimir Putin signed deals totaling $US 21 billion, mostly for its state nuclear company, Rosatom, to build a power station in Egypt. Sisi’s government is also considering buying Russia’s S-400 missile system.
After 19 month of a complete boycott, the Italian ambassador returned to Cairo last September. His mandate was to resume diplomatic relations but not to promote business. Since then, Italy’s Interior Minister, Marco Minniti, visited Cairo to meet with President al-Sisi on African migration and security in Libya. But no other ministers, official economic, cultural or tourist delegations are allowed to enter Egypt at the moment. The work of the Italian-Egyptians Business Council has been frozen and no new contracts have been signed.
Big Italian companies, deeply rooted in the Egyptian economy like ENI, AlexBank and several others, never stopped their activities. But for many others, business is not as usual anymore. Many smaller Italian companies cannot afford a complicated and bureaucratic environment like Egypt without the backing of national institutions. Even before the assassination of Giulio Regeni, SACE, the Italian financial and credit insurance service, found it difficult to promote more Italian investments in Egypt.
Today the components industry linked to Zohr development, fresher projects like the “New Cairo”, the industrial and commercial development of the Suez Canal, as well as the Luxor corridor are all opportunities to capture. Furthermore, over the last two years Egypt has been promoting an increasing number of trade and bilateral agreements with Africa. Cairo is back as a renovated hub of the sub-Saharan countries, and that is a strategic area for Italy, too.
China and Russia are actively exploiting these new Egyptian opportunities, alongside Germany, the UK and other EU members. The very same countries that were supposed to show some modicum of solidarity with Giulio Regeni and Italy.