Following the Italian parliament’s decision to restrict the export of F-16 spare parts to Egypt in late June with the “Regeni Resolution” – named after the Italian student tortured to death in Cairo in January – the Egyptian government responded by declaring it would reconsider cooperation with Italy to combat illegal migration.
Egypt’s implied threat was that it would “flood Italy with migrants”, and given past experiences it is not an idle one. Since the 1990s Italy and the EU’s desire to stem human trafficking has steadily climbed the list of priorities in their relations with Cairo. The flow of illegal migrants from Egypt dramatically increased in the wake of the Arab Spring, then accelerated again after the military’s seizure of power in July 2013.
History of duplicity
In 2015, the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report downgraded Egypt’s global ranking and this year’s report placed it on its Watch List due to the Cairo government’s failure to take appropriate measures and a surge of illegal migrants from Egypt.
In June, the head of Frontex – the EU’s border protection agency – expressed concern that a rising proportion of migrants seeking entry to Europe were coming from Egypt. In the first half of 2016 Egypt was the source of a minimum of 70,000 illegal migrants. Italy receives almost 40 percent of Egypt’s legal migrants to Europe – far and away the highest proportion. A further cause for growing concern has been Egypt’s key role in supporting General Khalifa Haftar’s forces in eastern Libya, from the coast of which a large number of migrants depart for Europe.
Egypt’s ability to facilitate or stem that flow gives added meaning to the threat to flood Europe with migrants.
In addition to the sheer numbers, the changing composition of migration from Egypt to Europe also poses a threat. Increasingly, these migrants are women and children, those most susceptible to exploitation by human traffickers and criminal gangs. Since 2011 the proportion of unaccompanied children among Egyptian irregular migrants to Europe has – according to the International Organization for Migration – “been remarkably high”.
Egypt’s implied threat was that it would “flood Italy with migrants”, and given past experiences it is not an idle one.
In 2014, they accounted for about one half of all irregular Egyptian migrants arriving in Italy, and in 2015 they were more than from any other country. The State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report cited Egypt as a “source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and sexual exploitation”. The Italian mafia is heavily involved in this trafficking, which feeds into its networks of prostitution, paedophile rings, and slave-like employment in Italy’s South.
People as weapons
The Egyptian government’s threat to “flood” Italy with migrants – which on first glance seemed reminiscent of Muammar Gaddafi’s threat to do the same before he was overthrown – is, in light of the composition of irregular migrants already going there, more akin to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s strategy of recruiting the poor and downtrodden – especially children – into the Basij militias.
This force – originally recruited to assist the Revolutionary Guard Corps in imposing control – was then deployed to the frontlines in the war against Iraq during the 1980s. Largely untrained, and even unarmed, these basiji were sent forward in human waves, being mowed down in their thousands.
Those most vulnerable among them are to be used as cannon fodder, in this case in an effort to defend [Sisi’s] security services
While this analogy may be somewhat stretched, the deplorable conditions and exploitation already facing irregular migrants from Egypt in Italy suggest at a minimum that like the Ayatollah, President Sisi cares little about the welfare of his people. Those most vulnerable among them are to be used as cannon fodder, in this case in an effort to defend his security services from the consequences of being proven to be involved in the killing of Giulio Regeni. So one crime is to be covered up by another, in true mafia fashion.
In addition to being callous and cold-hearted, Cairo’s threat to send waves of its people to Italy is counterproductive for its own interests. Out of all European leaders Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was the most outspoken in defense of the Sisi government. Already forced to back away from that support in light of the Regeni affair, the threat to flood his country with hapless Egyptians renders any reconciliation with Cairo now virtually impossible given the political sensitivity regarding the migration issue in Italy.
ENI is Italy’s dominant oil company and the developer of the newly discovered Zohr gas field off the Egyptian coast – on which Egypt’s energy future depends heavily – and is similarly placed in a most awkward position. It would not be surprising were it to be more cautious in its approach to developing that field in light of the rising bilateral tensions.
Possible awareness in Cairo of the downsides of the ill-considered threat are behind the recent initiative to cool down the crisis. On 18 July, a special parliamentary committee – headed by a former general close to President Sisi – recommended a “calm parliamentary” response to the spare parts embargo instead of “confrontational diplomacy”.
But repairing the damage done to Egypt’s reputation – to become, once again, a reliable partner of a leading EU country – by threatening to flood it with its unwanted women and children, will not be easy or quick. Gaddafi was ridiculed for threatening to employ that same tactic. The fate of Iranian basiji is one of the darkest blotches on the mixed reputation of Ayatollah Khomeini.
President Sisi’s own people can hardly take heart from the threat to send them off in boats to uncertain fates on foreign shores. The uttering of that threat was thus profoundly ill-advised, especially because it reveals so clearly the contempt President Sisi has not only for global order and the vital relationship with Europe, but for his own people.
- Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. Until October, 2013, he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and Program Manager for the Middle East for the Center for Civil-Military Relations.
From 2002 until 2008 he held the MBI Al Jaber Chair in Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he also served as Director of the London Middle East Institute. Before taking up that Chair he was Director of the American Research Center in Egypt.