The Italian government is moving forward with the sale of two Fremm frigates, worth an estimated 1.2 billion euros, to Egypt, despite opposition to the deal over the lack of progress in the investigation into the murder of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni in Cairo in 2016, according to Italian news agency ANSA.
The frigates are part of a much larger arms deal between Egypt and Italy that is still in the works and is estimated to be valued between 9 and 10 billion euros, which would make it the largest military acquisition in Egyptian history.
News of the frigate sale came one day after a phone call between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on June 7. The news sparked widespread criticism in Italy, prompting Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio to tell a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday that talks on the frigate sale were still ongoing and had not yet been definitively finalized. “A political assessment is needed, as well as a technical one,” Di Maio said.
Yet on Thursday, Conte said the sale of the two frigates to Egypt could go ahead after ministers and other government officials decided not to oppose it, according to La Repubblica. Culture Minister Dario Franceschini stressed the importance of the prime minister taking “a clear position” on the Regeni case to demonstrate that the deal does not go against the investigation into the Italian student’s death.
According to the French newspaper La Tribune, the Italian shipbuilding company Fiancateri relied on Egyptian businessman Ahmed El-Sewedy to broker the deal.
La Tribune also noted that the deal comes in the context of Italy and Germany increasing their arms exports to Egypt as France has decreased its arms sales following French President Emmanuel Macron criticism of Egypt’s human rights record during his first visit to Cairo in January 2019. Between 2014 and 2018, France was the largest arms exporter to Egypt, accounting for 37% of sales, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Italian prosecutors have been investigating Regeni’s killing in coordination with Egyptian officials, but after more than four years, no one has been charged.
During his comments on Wednesday, Di Maio said efforts were being made to set up a meeting between the top prosecutors of Rome and Cairo. The foreign minister also addressed the case of Patrick George Zaki, the Egyptian student who was pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Bologna and was arrested at the Cairo airport in February as he was returning to Egypt to visit his family. He was subsequently held incommunicado for 24 hours by National Security Agency officers, during which time he was beaten and electrocuted before appearing before the public prosecutor in his hometown of Mansoura. Zaki is being held in remand detention on a range of charges that include calling for the overthrow of the state and incitement to commit violence and terrorist crimes.
“Concern remains high for [Zaki] too,” Di Maio said. “Our embassy in Cairo continues to monitor the evolution of the hearings. Italy will continue to follow the case.”
The 9 to 10 billion-euro megadeal, which was first reported in the Italian press in early February, includes six frigates, 24 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets, 24 M-346 jet trainer aircraft and a surveillance satellite.
Last year, Rome prosecutors placed five members of Egypt’s security forces under official investigation for their alleged involvement in Regeni’s disappearance.
This past December, an Italian parliamentary commission that was set up to review the case held its first session in Rome. Lead Italian prosecutor Sergio Colaiocco told the commission that Egyptian officials deliberately tried to mislead the investigation on at least four occasions.
In mid-January, Egypt’s public prosecutor Hamada al-Sawy announced that a new investigative team had been formed to look into the case. Sawy did not state why the new team had been formed, but an Egyptian official told Mada Masr at the time that the move allows Egypt to further procrastinate while appearing to make progress on the issue.
The official also said Italy may use the political pressure it faces over Regeni’s case as further leverage to secure more deals with Egypt, adding that there may be “some mega-economic deal to accommodate the Italian government.”