In January 2016, the body of a Italian student was found in a ditch near Cairo. To date, no-one has been arrested for his killing – and economic and political interests seem to be complicating the quest for justice.
Giulia Petroni is a journalism student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Almost three years after Giulio Regeni’s halfnaked, tortured body was found in a ditch on the outskirts of Cairo, no-one has been arrested or charged over the killing.
Regeni, an Italian post-graduate student at the University of Cambridge, was conducting research on independent labour unions in Egypt. Prosecutors in Italy believe the 28-yearold was kidnapped and murdered on January 25, 2016, the fifth anniversary of Tahir Square’s protests.
At present, discovering the truth about what happened to him remains a pipe dream. But as the search for justice widens, diplomatic tensions between Italy and Egypt are escalating dramatically.
On Tuesday, prosecutors in Rome formally opened an investigation into five Egyptian domestic secret service members and police investigators in connection with the murder. Prosecutor Sergio Colaiocco said the suspects are believed to have been active participants in Regeni’s abduction.
The five under investigation are a now-retired major-general and a major at the domestic security agency, two police colonels and a junior police officer, according to security officials in Cairo. At least one of the officials has been re-assigned to a remote province.
The launch of the investigation is likely to increase tensions with Egypt, which has already bristled at moves by Italy’s lower house to cut off parliamentary relations over the case. There was no immediate reaction from Cairo this week, but Egyptian prosecutors have reportedly rejected a request to add members of Egypt’s national security agency (NSA) to the list of murder suspects.
“Egyptian law does not recognise what is called ‘the record of suspects,’” read a statement released last week by Egypt’s State Information Service. “Charges should be based on evidence and not suspicions.”
Italian investigators have previously expressed suspicions that Regeni was followed by agents from the NSA, who also reportedly deployed Ahmed Abdullah, the head of the street vendors’ union, to surveil and film Regeni while he researched trade unions in Egypt, a politically sensitive subject.
In a largely symbolic move, the president of Italy’s lower house of parliament, Roberto Fico, said last week he would suspend diplomatic relations with the Egyptian parliament. In the meantime, Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi summoned Egypt’s ambassador to Rome, urging Cairo to respect its commitment to bring those responsible for Regeni’s murder to justice.
The Secretary General of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Egyptian Parliament, Tarek El Khouly, called the decision “ unhappy and unjustified.”
“We deal with the other countries on the basis of the principle of reciprocity. We have nothing to hide and nothing to fear,” he said.
BACK TO 2011
Regeni first started to get interested in Egypt’s politics in 2011, when the country’s revolutionary spirit erupted in the Arab Spring uprising. While Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship was being overthrown, Regeni was graduating in Arabic and Politics in England. Two years later, he was in Cairo working at a United Nations agency, when a second wave of protests led to a military coup that ousted newly-elected president Mohamed Morsi from power and installed Army general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the helm.
From that moment on, the country entered a climate of repression that has led to the complete marginalisation of the political opposition, state surveillance of communications, and public exhortations to report critics of the government to the authorities. Censorship, prosecution, and attacks on journalists became a fact of everyday life in Egypt.
Regeni returned to England and started following the al-Sisi government from afar. As he studied for his doctorate at Cambridge, he decided to focus on Egypt’s independent unions, viewing them as a fragile hope for the country’s democracy. Guided by his Cambridge’s professor and tutor Maha Abdelrahman, Regeni chose to study street vendors.
In a country where the intelligence services control information, politics and economy, one wrong move can lead to imprisonment or death. “The Egyptian security services today feel they can torture, disappear and shoot suspects without fear of any accountability or oversight,” said Najia Bounaim, campaigns director for North Africa at Amnesty International.
Marches, demonstrations, gatherings that are considered to “work against the public order” or “threaten national security” are prohibited in Egypt. NGOs and other groups seen as interfering in governmental affairs are harassed, disbanded, sanctioned and sometimes directly shut down.
Journalists whose reports contradict the state’s official narrative can be arrested and sentenced to prison too – in 2017, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported over 20 imprisonments. Entertainment and satirical shows can be suspended or banned by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation for violation of “ethical standards.”
Foreigners, however, were thought to be subject to different rules, as if they were somehow protected by their passports. When Regeni returned to Cairo in 2015, he registered as a visiting scholar at the American University and rented a room in Dokki, a neighbourhood between the Pyramids and the Nile.
On the anniversary of the 2011 uprising, Regeni was invited to a birthday party for an Egyptian leftist. Regeni texted his girlfriend at 7.41pm, telling her he was heading to Tahir Square. He never arrived.
His friends started an online search campaign using the hashtag ‘#whereisgiulio,’ but it was too late. Nine days later, Regeni’s body was found. An autopsy confirmed he had been beaten, burned, and stabbed. He died, the coroners recorded, when his neck was snapped.
Improbable theories started spreading: Regeni was gay and had been murdered by a jealous lover. He was a drug addict, a Muslim Brotherhood pawn. He was a CIA spy, the innocent victim of a local gang of kidnappers.
Italy soon sent its own team of investigators to work on the case, but their access has always been limited by the Egyptian authorities – Italians were not even present during the original autopsy in Cairo. Over the years, investigations have been repeatedly obstructed both by Egyptian officials – who deny any involvement and have provided misleading theories about what happened to him – and Regeni’s supervisor at Cambridge, who reportedly rejected collaboration with the Italian prosecutors for a long time.
The brutal homicide prompted a reaction among the international community – thousands of newspaper articles, petitions, and protests. Amnesty International Italy launched its “Truth for Giulio Regeni” campaign. The European Parliament passed a resolution condemning al-Sisi’s government for ongoing human rights abuses. Yet for all that, obstruction remains the name of the game. “It feels like all of the state [Egypt], with all of its strength, is trying to kill the story,” said Hoda Kamel, a union organiser who helped Regeni in his research.
Giulio Regeni was one of a generation of young Europeans who are willing to cross borders to pursue their dreams and careers. He spoke five languages. He lived in Italy, in the United States, in England, and in the Middle East. He was a citizen of the world. Yet since he died in Cairo – the so-called “mother of the world.” – criticisms of the Egypt’s human rights abuses have fallen on deaf ears.
The country’s long history of repression and abuses collides with Italy’s fundamental democratic values. However, Egypt is a key partner for Italy. Since 1914, the two countries have retained solid diplomatic ties.
Italy is today al-Sisi’s biggest European trading partner. In 2017, Italian exports to Egypt amounted to 3.1 billion euros – higher than in previous years. Italy’s foreign direct investment also registered a positive trend, rising from 4.9 billion to 7.9 billion euros. To give just one example of the ties between the nations, Italy’s National Hydrocarbons Authority (ENI), a state-led energy group that has been in Egypt for 50 years, has invested over US$7 billion in Zohr, a gas field discovered at 120 miles off the north coast of Egypt, in recent years.
From a political perspective, the two countries have a high interest in maintaining the status quo too. Italy’s intelligence services need Egypt’s help in countering the Islamic State, managing the conflict in Libya and monitoring the flood of migrants across the Mediterranean. Egypt also receives Italy’s military funding – in April 2016, Cairo received over a million euros-worth of arms and ammunition, according to Italy’s National Institute for Statistics.
The question, it seems, is whether economic and political interests can continue to outweigh human rights and justice. There is a phrase in Latin that springs to mine: arcana imperii. It means the secrets of power.