There is a not-so-invisible thread between Italy’s decision to send its ambassador back to Egypt and the stance of Italian politicians vis a vis migrants coming from Libya. Addressing any Libyan party about this issue necessitates negotiations with Egypt. But there are several knots in the thread.
The first knot concerns Italy’s migration policies. The influx of migrants into Italy comes mainly from West Africa to the Mediterranean, through Niger and Libya.
Two years ago, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government proposed the Migration Compact, a discussion paper outlining a strategy for “enhancing cooperation” with countries in Africa to stem the flow of migrants and strengthen their border controls.
The European Union has since implemented a series of measures and deals with several key Sub-Saharan African countries, including funding socio-economic development projects and efforts to better control borders and migration. Niger has become the role model for this approach: The number of migrants entering Libya via Niger dropped drastically between 2016 and 2017. This is probably one of the main reasons why the numbers of migrants slumped in Italy in July this year. But, it is also important to remember that a similar collapse occurred before the clash between NGOs and Libya’s hostile coastguard. Reducing the influx of people at its source wasn’t effective enough, as more continued to enter, while other European countries closed their borders.
Italy’s involvement in Libya, pushed mostly by Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti, is much harsher and involves the Libyan coastguard, which is broadly under the authority of the Government of National Accord, headed by Fayez al-Serraj, although this authority is fragile and shifts with the constellation of armed groups that move in and out of collaboration with the GNA. Serraj is officially recognized by the international community, including Egypt — though this is often undermined in practice — but Italy is the only country with an embassy still open in Tripoli and that maintains working relationships at lower levels of government, including the ability to send delegations and broker business deals.
Minniti’s plan is to block the influx of migrants from Libya, as well as from Niger. In order to achieve this, he has supported the Libyan coastguard with Italian ships and EU training, creating a Search and Rescue (SAR) zone. Those “rescued” in this zone are taken back to Libya and are not permitted to seek asylum in Europe. Serraj agreed to this plan, but his supporters accuse him of selling Libya’s sovereignty to its once colonial power.
And herein lies the second knot in the common thread between Regeni and Italy’s deal on migration: Serraj’s opponents are Egypt’s allies. Serraj is relatively weak, with no direct control over anything, and the coastguard is nothing more than a collection of local militias, some closely tied to the smugglers themselves.
On the other side of Libya, between Benghazi and the Egyptian border, Khalifa Haftar, the head of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army and a staunch anti-Islamist, has more power and influence. Haftar receives arms and political support from Cairo and the United Arab Emirates and has accused Serraj of treason for cooperating with Italy. For this reason, there have been suggestions in Italian media that Italy needs a deal with Haftar, as well as Serraj, to prevent boats from leaving from the east, if the west is already patrolled. However, a quick look at the map shows how far Italian waters are from Cyreniaca, which makes this less of an immediate risk.
This is where the third knot comes into play: Egypt. Relations between Italy and Egypt have been strained since Regeni’s murder, particularly since Italy recalled then-ambassador Maurizio Massari and appointed a new non-resident ambassador in May 2016. Many surrounding Minniti maintained that Libya was not manageable without Egypt’s help. With the ambassador recalled and then operating out of Italy, they had lost daily, direct diplomatic channels with Egypt.
This was the reasoning in Minniti’s plan: We need to block migrants in Libya. We don’t have access to do this ourselves, so we will subcontract Libyans to do it for us. These Libyans are under threat from other Libyans, who are Egypt’s allies. Therefore, it is necessary to reactivate good relations with Egypt.
However, not everything is a given in this plan. One of them is the lack of solidarity from Europe. There was hardly any support when Giulio Regeni was murdered. A week after the Italian ambassador was recalled, former French President François Hollande visited Cairo to sign billions of dollars worth of economic deals, mostly involving Egypt’s security agencies and defense sector, which many perceive to have had a hand in Regeni’s death. The same lack of solidarity characterizes Europe’s views concerning migrants.
Nevertheless, a different political approach to migration is possible. One that would, for instance, propose the following deal to African states: We deliver visas to regular migrants and you take back those that come to Italy through irregular channels. The UNHCR proposed the resettlement of 20,000 refugees in Europe, but the EU refused. This approach would allow Italy to circumvent the Libya question, because regular migrants and those designated as refugees would travel by plane rather than in Libyan smugglers’ rubber boats. But this would also require courageous political choices that truly aim to “manage the flows,” to use Minniti’s words. Management and regulation, rather than impediments.
If those choices were made, Italy could send more than one ambassador to Egypt. The problem is not about sending a person whose job is to maintain diplomatic relations with a foreign country. The problem lies in the ambassador’s mandate. His mandate could (or rather, should) be to relentlessly remind the Egyptian government that Italy wants the truth about Giulio Regeni’s murder. This will only be possible with a different policy on migration, which would untangle the aforementioned knots.
Note: This piece was originally published in Italian at L’Espresso on August 22.
Translation by Rouba Hassan