by Alessandro De Pascale

On Wednesday 19 July, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced a “presidential pardon” for Patrick Zaki. The Bologna University researcher (who received his doctorate online on 5 July) had been sentenced the same day by the Egyptian Special Court to three years in prison for spreading false news. All because of an article he wrote in 2019 about discrimination against Copts. His parents belong to this religious minority, the largest in Egypt (between 6 and 8 million believers) and the largest Christian community in the Middle East.

Zaki’s sentence could not be appealed because the Egyptian judicial system has only one level. The University of Bologna researcher was therefore arrested in the courtroom on Wednesday. Without a pardon (requested by Italy, the United States and human rights organisations), he would have had to serve an additional 14 months, as he was detained from 7 February 2020, the day he had landed at Cairo airport to visit relatives, until 8 December 2021, when he was released with a travel ban to continue his trial.

With the Zaki case, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has sent a clear message to all his fellow citizens abroad who criticise his power or engage in activism. The warning from the head of the armed forces, who led the military coup that overthrew his predecessor Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013, goes something like this: “With such behaviour, you will not be able to return to Egypt, except at the risk of being arrested and tried”. Patrick Zacki, a pharmacy graduate of the German University in Cairo and now also of Ima and the University of Bologna (with a Masters’s in Women’s and Gender Studies), was already a member of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights organisation in Cairo.

Zaki’s activism was also political, against the current Egyptian President. During the 2018 elections, which al-Sisi won with over 97% of the vote, Patrick Zaki was one of the campaign organisers for Khaled Ali, a lawyer and political activist committed to defending human rights, who later withdrew from the race, denouncing the climate of intimidation in the face of numerous arrests of his staff. Other candidates had done the same, and the only one left on the list against Al-Sisi was the little-known Moussa Mustafa Moussa, an avowed admirer of the coup general, who received just 2.92% of the vote, making him the winner with virtually no rivals.

The Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, announced in a video message on Wednesday that Zaki would be returning to Italy the following day, something that has not yet happened. The Prime Minister went on to thank “President al-Sisi for this very important gesture”. In the same video message, she once again took credit for resolving the affair, thus presenting herself as a winner: “Since our first meeting in November, I have raised the issue and I have always found you to be listening and available.” She concluded by thanking “the intelligence and diplomatic services, both Italian and Egyptian”.

Zaki’s case, following pressure from civil society and human rights organisations, further strained relations between Italy and Egypt. It was preceded by that of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student at Cambridge University, who was abducted in Cairo on 25 January 2016 (the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring protests in Tahrir Square) and found lifeless with obvious signs of torture near an Egyptian intelligence prison the following 3 February. This case is part of a wave of deaths and enforced disappearances in prisons across Egypt during the Al-Sisi era. According to the Rome prosecutor’s office (which is responsible for all cases involving Italians abroad), Regeni was arrested by the Egyptian security forces on suspicion of trying to finance a revolution.

The Egyptian government and local authorities have been consistently uncooperative regarding the death of the Italian PhD student from Cambridge University, and this has been compounded by the disinformation that has been used from the outset to try and cover up those responsible. Nevertheless, on 25 May 2021, at the end of the investigation by the public prosecutor in Rome, four officers of the Egyptian internal secret service (the National Security Agency) were indicted: General Tariq Sabir, Colonels Athar Kamel and Usham Helmi, and Major Magdi Sharif. The charges include aggravated kidnapping, conspiracy to inflict grievous bodily harm and, of course, murder. There are no charges of torture, as this was only introduced into the Italian penal code in 2017 and now the Meloni Government wants to remove it.

In June 2019, during the Government of the 5-Star and Northern League parties, the then-Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte spoke on the phone with Al-Sisi. The Prime Minister’s office reported that the purpose of the call was to coordinate the (failed) ceasefire in Libya and to demand the truth about the Regeni case. Months later, it emerged that the call was instead about the sale of war material. In particular, two FREMM military frigates, the Spartaco Schergat and the Emilio Bianchi, were built by the Italian state-owned giant Fincantieri, whose contract was to be finalised the following month. Already built at the time of the agreement, they were to be delivered to the Italian Navy (extending the service life of the two units they were to replace).

Despite the lack of cooperation in the investigation of Regeni’s murder and the ongoing Zaki case, the government led by Giuseppe Conte decided to sell them to General al-Sisi at a favourable price: 990 million euro, at least 210 million (or even 556 according to other estimates) less than what the Italian State, and therefore Italian taxpayers, would have paid for them. To this must be added the interest on the loans taken out to finance the project and the cost of dismantling the NATO systems and technologies already installed on the two ships (which could reach 400 million euro).

Thanks to this sale, Egypt became the first destination for Italian arms exports in 2020, with a value of 991.2 million euros. The petro-monarchies of the Gulf, Qatar in fourth place and the United Arab Emirates in eleventh, preceded by Turkmenistan in eighth place and followed by China in nineteenth place. But Egypt has not only asked Italy for these two frigates. According to the pan-Arab magazine The Arab Weekly and various Italian and foreign specialist publications (Analisi Difesa, NavalNews and others), al-Sisi wants to buy four more FREMM frigates from the Italian government for USD 10.7 billion, as well as 20 Fincantieri maritime patrol aircraft, 24 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets, some M-346 trainer aircraft from Leonardo (formerly State-owned Finmeccanica) and an observation satellite.

Because of Zaki’s case, a new centre-left Government led by Conte in 2020 (the 5-Star Movement and the Democratic Party) froze the negotiations, which Meloni’s far-right Government hasn’t yet thawed. If, after the Italian Prime Minister’s thanks to Al-Sisi, the general gets what he asked for, Zaki’s pardon would be another victory for the Egyptian President. It should perhaps be recalled that, in addition to allegations of internal repression of dissent, Egypt is backing General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar in Libya, who is fighting against the Government of Fayez al-Sarraj, which is backed by the UN and, formally, Italy.

On the cover photo: Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi © 360b/