Credit: Luca Gamberini
Italy should put the protection of democracy and human rights defenders higher in its foreign policy agenda, starting from the case of Patrick Zaki.
As the title suggests, we must not drop our guard and try to cast doubt over Italy’s pressure on Egypt for the release of Patrick Zaki, a 27-year-old Egyptian student of the University of Bologna and human rights activist. The question is not a rhetoric one. Italy is doing all that is possible in diplomatic terms to succeed in lobbying the Egyptian government to free Patrick. For many Italians, however, this is not enough.
Haunted by the fate of Giulio Regeni, an Italian researcher who died in mysterious circumstances in February 2016 and whose body, which showed signs of torture, was found on the outskirts of Cairo, the public demands more effort from Italian authorities to save Patrick’s life. Asking Rome to put more pressure on Cairo, also in economic terms, is a strategy that our government has indeed to consider. It may not be the only solution, but it would set an important precedent in foreign policy: protecting the rights of everyone should come at any cost.
Who is Patrick Zaki?
In September 2019, Patrick George Zaki enrolled at UNIBO GEMMA, one of the very few Master programs on Gender Studies in Italy. In February 2020, he went back to Egypt for a brief period before coming back for the second term of his degree. On February 8, 2020, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) first reported Patrick’s arrest, which happened the previous day, when — according to what his lawyers declare — officials from Egypt’s National Security Agency took him to a detention center, beating and electrocuting him.
From that day on, Patrick has been living in a jail in Mansura, a city north of Cairo, due to accusations of sedition, promotion of terrorism and disruption of public order, after speaking out against the Egyptian government on Facebook.
Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has allegedly worsened Patrick’s custody: Amnesty International activist Riccardo Noury affirms that Patrick is confined in a small cell, struggling with health issues, including asthma, and with the continuous postponement of his trial’s hearings. After months of silence, however, Patrick’s family received a letter from him in which he assured them of his good conditions and expressed his hope to be released soon.
The arrest and the protests
The news of Patrick’s arrest immediately became viral in Italy, both in the media and on social networks. In fact, the story of Patrick triggered a lingering trauma, reopening a wound related to the death of Regeni, whose case shocked the country in way hardly seen before. Four years later, people feel that no justice has been done yet on the case, as the Egyptians have never really collaborated with Italian authorities, throwing off the investigation’s multiple times.
In the past, other students and researchers have been arrested on arrival in Egypt from the United States, Germany and Britain. However, the governments of these countries avoided to give resonance to the cases for political reasons.
Italians, instead, used the media and social networks to push the government for a greater effort, but to no avail. Yet, the city of Bologna, where Patrick lived before moving to Egypt, organized rallies to show solidarity to Patrick and insistently demand the Italian government to do more to free him.
Can Italy do more?
The Italian government took up the case and sent its aides to Cairo to change the course of Patrick’s fate. Of course, we cannot know what our diplomatic service is concretely doing to free him, especially considering that, although he received the honorary citizenship from the city of Bologna, he’s not an Italian citizen.
However, we all have the feeling that the case of Patrick, as it was for Giulio Regeni, will collide with our national interests. There is concern that the important economic and geopolitical ties we have with Egypt will be jeopardized or, even worse, will prevail over human rights and justice considerations.
Since he took charge in Cairo, indeed, el-Sisi has managed to dodge Western censure on his human rights record by flexing his economic and political muscles. Egypt runs one of the largest gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean together with Italy’s state-owned energy giant Eni. Morover, two Fincantieri frigades could be sold soon to Egypt, which is also the main importer of Italian weapons.
A few days ago, the Italian Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Manlio Di Stefano, affirmed that Italy will not remove its ambassador to Egypt as keeping relations open is the only solution to find out the truth about Giulio Regeni. In a world which is increasingly interconnected and intertwined, someone might argue, it is not conceivable that bilateral relations with other countries are conditioned by every slightest alteration in the level of democracy.
Distorted national interests
The realist approach seems the one that the current Italian government intends to follow. Some political analysts affirm that, with all its limits, diplomacy — and not interference in internal affairs — is often the only hope for foreign detainees. But as much as rational this point is, this is not how it should be.
We have to ask ourselves if the life of these people, whether Italian or not, are worth less than hundreds of international deals. Even though I will sound overly moralistic, this is something that deserves greater attention, especially within a longer-term debate. No one is a hundred percent certain that only by using traditional diplomatic means Patrick will be released; nor that suspending diplomatic and economic ties would do the same. So, we are at a crossroads. What is more valuable? Our economic relations which, of course, give work to millions of people? Or the lives and missions of Patrick and Giulio? As we are facing lose-lose situations in both cases, there is no easy answer to this question.
However, it is worth making a clear point to guide our responses. What Europeans proudly affirm compared to other countries in the world — especially our southern neighbours — is that our democratic values make us different. Human rights activists like Patrick should thus be honored for the service they provide. Instead, as a point of fact, they are valued less than our economic deals. This is a not an Italian issue, but a European one. Even if we do not sell our arms to a country, we supposedly know that France, Germany or Spain would jump into the breach, instead of suspending their deals in solidarity with our foreign actions. The EU is the first actor which should help us do more in this quest for human rights protection.
Unfortunately, it can only rely on its — almost useless — declaratory means to show the world how good Europeans are at showing off their solidarity. Therefore, keeping the ethical and political-economic levels separated is the best choice a country has when facing such issues, realists will counter. However, what is lacking in this strategy is that a credible, authoritative and respected international role cannot be forged by keeping relations afloat, only to sell more goods and services than your competitors, like in a city market.
A foreign policy worthy of the name should be planned over the long term and should be based on a strong diplomatic system capable of both preserving the rule of law and protecting our economy. Only in this way our national interest will be fully respected. We all hope that people like Patrick will open our eyes, soon.
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