A factual insight on the murder of Giulio Regeni
Ursula Lindsey, The Arabist
We still don’t know what happened to Giulio Regeni, the 28-year-old graduate student whose battered corpse was found on the side of the road in Cairo. Anonymous eyewitnesses (and a few security officials) have told international media outlets that plain-clothes police took Giulio Regeni into custody on the evening of January 25. The Egyptian Ministry of Interior has denied this. There has been a strong suspicion, from the start, that Egypt’s security services kidnapped, tortured and, probably accidentally, killed Regeni — especially given the timing of his disappearance (on a day when the authorities were on high alert to prevent any commemoration of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak five years ago, and were conducting raids, arrests and interrogations) and the kind of abuse he suffered.
The question in the Regeni case is whether the Egyptian police would dare do to a foreigner what it does on a systematic basis to Egyptians. As local and international human rights groups have documented, extra-judicial disappearances have become a common practice in Egypt in the two years since the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. The police snatches people from the street or their homes, and interrogates and tortures them while holding them in secret. Their families and friends are unable to ascertain their whereabouts. This is called, in Egyptian Arabic, putting someone «behind the sun». Then, weeks or months later, if they are not killed in custody, the disappeared resurface, having often confessed to terrorism charges. In 2015, the country’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) received around 200 complaints about forced disappearances.
The uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2011 began as a protest against police brutality scheduled for National Police Day. Protesters systematically attacked and destroyed police stations across the country. But the Egyptian security services today act with more brutality and more impunity than ever before, arguing that the country’s war on terrorism demands exceptional measures. And now they are joined by the military, which conducts its own arrests and interrogations and operates its own secret prisons.
In a police station in Matareya, a lower-income Cairo suburb, 14 people have died in custody in the last two years. Last week, a policeman convicted of killing activist Shaimaa el-Sabbagh — who in January 2015 had gone to lay a wreath in Tahrir Square in honor of dead protesters and whose own death was caught on camera — successfully appealed his verdict. His defense lawyer reportedly argued that the officer should be excused due to «extraordinary circumstances», and that if the police had intended to kill protesters that day, they would have shot many more.
There remains no accountability for the hundreds of protesters killed during the uprising against Mubarak in 2011 and in clashes with the policy and the army that followed; nor for the at least one thousand supporters of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi who were shot dead by security forces clearing a sit-in at the Rabaa El Adawiya Square in the summer of 2013.
For the last two years, the Egyptian government and the media (which it controls or intimidates) have fomented new levels of paranoia and xenophobia, painting all foreigners, journalists and researchers as potential “spies”. They blamed the uprising against Mubarak on Western meddling and passed laws to criminalize NGOs and cultural centers receiving funds from abroad. They created an atmosphere in which any request for information was suspicious and any expression of dissent treasonous.
Labour unions — the focus of Regeni’s scholarship and journalism — are one of the many arenas that the regime is trying to shut down. It is doing the same with the media, universities, human rights groups and cultural institutions.
Beleaguered Egyptian activists, who have suffered so much, were nonetheless moved and outraged by Regeni’s murder. As the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif — whose own nephew and nieces, leaders of youth protest movements, have been jailed by Sisi — wrote on her Facebook page: «Hundreds of our young people are missing, bodies are turning up of young men shot while handcuffed, yet there is something so extra sad about a person who comes to Egypt in good faith to live and study and gets caught in this nightmare, this obtuse and brutal thuggery that’s the undertone of our lives here today. Giulio Regeni, so many of us are weeping for you. May you be at peace and may your family find solace».
Some Egyptian activists also probably realize that a foreign victim is their best chance of attracting international attention to the dire human rights situation in the country, one in which pervasive, frequent and egregious violations have become normalized.
This is public knowledge, though. The shock of Italian officials, following the discovery of Regeni’s body, rings hollow. Isabel Esterman is a journalist at one of Egypt’s few independent media outlets, the bilingual online news site Mada Masr. «Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hailed Sisi as ‘a great leader’ who can ‘save’ Egypt, and joined the Italian president in welcoming him in Rome», she writes. «Italy is one of Egypt’s most important trading partners, with annual bilateral trade at around US$6 billion and rising. Among other things, between 2011 and 2013, Italy sold Egypt more than half a billion euros worth of guns and bullets. Even as Giulio’s battered corpse was lying anonymously somewhere in the city, a trade delegation led by Italian officials was rubbing shoulders with the Cairo elite — a visit that was terminated only when news of Giulio’s death went public. Italian officials want their gas deals and their anti-terror coalition, and they have always known what the price is. They just expected that somebody else — somebody else’s children — would be the ones to pay for it».
The Egyptian film-maker, writer and activist Omar Robert Hamilton has also argued that: «When Italy sends annual trade delegations, when its Prime Minister stands up at an Egyptian economic conference and says, ‘Your war is our war, and your stability is our stability’, it only means one thing. Do whatever you need to do to stay in power, to keep Egypt’s “competitive advantage” for capital exploitation alive».
Unfortunately, we may very well never learn how Giulio Regeni was killed. Egypt’s authorities are in complete denial about their country’s human rights record. When a tragedy occurs — such as Regeni’s murder, or the planting of a bomb on a Russian passenger flight leaving the Sinai Peninsula — officials deny that Egypt has any responsibility and invoke conspiracies by unnamed elements to destabilize their country. They cannot be trusted to carry out a transparent and reliable investigation nor to hold their security services, if they are responsible, accountable.