Two years after the murder of Italian PhD student in Egypt, there is still no progress on bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student researching the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions at Cambridge University, disappeared in Egypt on January 25, 2016. With no official reports about his arrest, he was found dead on February 3, on the side of the motorway connecting Cairo to Alexandria, with visible signs of torture.
The ensuing confrontation between those who think that his murder was the sole responsibility of the Egyptian state and those who attack the University of Cambridge for not looking after one of its students has only made it more difficult to reach a complete understanding of what actually happened. The squabble playing out across the international media has managed to discredit even Giulio Regeni himself, with suggestions that he was perhaps an Italian or a British spy (based on his contributions to the think tank Oxford Analytica) rather than just an imprudent student. This ambiguous relationship between the press and the Italian investigators obstructed the path of the inquiry.
For six days, his disappearance was not disclosed to the media. Denouncing his disappearance publicly, as it usually happens when other Italian journalists have been arrested or kidnapped in the Middle East, could have endangered other potential informal intermediaries. When I was briefly detained in Egypt on February 2, 2011, the day of the Battle of the Camel, we only had enough time to send a text message to Italy before the soldiers who arrested us confiscated our mobiles. We were lucky to be held together with other foreigners and were released the same day.
Unfortunately, on the day of Regeni’s disappearance, Italian authorities and intelligence services acted in a way that prevented his release. There are several reasons why this happened.
We need to consider in more depth what kind of crime was committed and why. Giulio Regeni’s death, according to many analysts, was a political murder. This means that he was killed because of the topics he was tackling in his research on independent trade unions in Egypt. According to others, this was an attack against foreigners and against freedom of research. In this instance, it is his very doctoral status at the University of Cambridge that put him at risk. It is not easy to pick a side on this issue; it may well be self-defeating as both hypotheses seem reasonable enough.
Regeni may have been arrested, like so many Egyptians, on the fifth anniversary of the January 25 Revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak in 2011. At that point, the arrest might have turned into Regeni being taken into custody for his research activities, for which he was already being monitored by the Egyptian authorities. Two pieces of evidence confirm that he was under surveillance. First, the admission by Cairo police that a file was opened on Regeni before his disappearance. Second, a video of the researcher in a café in downtown Cairo, broadcast by Egyptian television in January 2017, was recorded by Mohammed Abdallah, the head of the street vendors’ trade union, demonstrating that Regeni was deemed suspicious.
At the same time, the statements by Mohammed Abdallah himself maintained that he contacted the Egyptian police after Regeni promised his trade union £10,000 ($14,000) — an extortionate amount of money in Egypt — to fund its activities between December 2015 and January 2016. This point has been extensively used by the Egyptian media to justify the allegations that Regeni was operating as a spy.
According to recent research, there are 19 cases of other Egyptian and Arab scientists who suffered a similar fate of enforced disappearance and torture in Egypt before Regeni. We know almost nothing about them. Considering the Italian student unlucky is a far more of a deceptive myth than reality. After July 3, 2013, military coup, journalists, researchers and activists have all been victims of the Egyptian regime, almost without any media coverage.
Attack on Academic Freedom?
It is not easy to answer the question of why Regeni was killed. We have neither any information about his arrest and detention nor any official interrogation reports. However, the name that could have come up at the stage when those who arrested him might have seen his documents and badges was Dr. Maha Abdelrahman, his PhD supervisor.
Abdelrahman has studied left-wing opposition movements in Egypt and focused her research on the long history of antagonism during the regimes of Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi and now Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In her book, Egypt’s Long Revolution Protests Movements and Uprisings, she discussed the political connections between Egypt’s opposition, the weak nature of possible coalitions between leftists and Islamists, and the role of the local trade unions in mobilizing the workers.
Killing one of her best students in his first year of PhD research might have been a way of damaging Abdelrahman and the whole academic enterprise focused on Egypt. Following Regeni’s death, dozens of researchers have been denied entry to or deported from Egypt, while others have canceled their trips because of safety concerns.
Days after news of the murder became public, Abdelrahman and her colleague at Cambridge, Dr. Anne Alexander, wrote a letter of protest against the Egyptian authorities to denounce the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. The letter garnered thousands of signatures in support. However, the initiative was labeled by the Egyptian ambassador to Italy in an interview with Italian public radio as the work of “well known oppositionists” to Sisi’s regime. Thus, before the petition achieved international support, the Egyptian authorities had already stigmatized the first signatories as the opposition.
At one stage of the investigation, Abdelrahman avoided answering Italian investigators’ questions. This can be easily explained as an attempt to protect her contacts. Eventually, in the first days of January 2018, Italian investigators managed to gain access to her laptop, her mobile and her Cambridge University email account. We still don’t know the outcomes of this investigations.
The only point that has to be clarified is whether Maha Abdelrahman knew that Regeni proposed money to the street vendors’ trade union. Was this an application for an academic grant? This would definitely not be standard academic procedure, particularly during field work research, although it was probably done with noble intentions.
As the Italian investigators concluded at this stage of the probe, Regeni was murdered for his research activities. The full responsibility for this act would lie with the Egyptian authorities.
Giulio Regeni’s executioners were waiting for a strong reaction from the media and the Italian authorities after his disappearance. Even though there were never any cases of foreign desaparecidos before, it was imperative to spread the news without delay.
This never took place. News of the missing student was reported by Italian media only on January 31, 2016, six days after his disappearance. That was a mistake made by the Italian embassy in Cairo and Regeni’s close friends in Egypt, such as the researchers Gennaro Gervasio and Francesco De Lellis, and his tutor at the American University in Cairo, Rabab el-Mahdi, as she confirmed in an interview to Corriere della Sera.
The small Italian community in Cairo knew immediately about the disappearance but stayed silent out of fear. While some of his friends wanted to start a social media campaign to demand his immediate release, others were going into local hospitals to make sure Regeni wasn’t among the patients, as often happens with the Egyptian desaparecidos. Meanwhile, diplomats issued a standard notice of disappearance to the local police, as confirmed in the Repubblica documentary 9 days in Cairo. The muted reaction could have contributed to the false assumptions by Regeni’s executioners that they were dealing with a spy or an activist with international connections, claimed neither by Italy nor the UK.
There are many reasons for the delayed reaction by the Italian authorities. A senior official confirmed directly to me under condition of anonymity that he was informed about the disappearance that “same evening.” However, the Italian government at the time did not consider Sisi’s Egypt a dictatorship. Then-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi referred to Sisi as a symbol of the fight against terrorism. When Sisi came to Rome in 2014, he was fêted as a great statesman.
Renzi was the only European prime minister to attend the economic forum of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2015. Second only to the French, Rome was a key economic and strategic partner, putting its interests first at a time when it was still possible to limit the demands for power by the military junta after the coup.
In addition, the role of the Italian embassy in Cairo is relevant. We do not know what role the embassy played in the first hours after Regeni’s disappearance. When did the negotiations start with the Egyptian authorities for the student’s release? How high up the bureaucratic ladder did they go? Why was the disappearance not disclosed publicly? The only certainty is that the former minister of economic development, Federica Guidi, canceled ongoing bilateral meetings in Cairo and went back to Italy together with a delegation of Italian entrepreneurs in Egypt on February 3, 2016 — the day Regeni’s body was found.
Moreover, we know that the Italian ambassador, summoned for urgent matters in Rome on April 8, 2016, stated in an interview with Italian television that he had been the first to see Regeni’s body in the Sayeda Zeinab morgue. He seemed to use that as proof that his intentions to seek the truth were unquestionable, even though we still don’t know how Regeni’s corpse was finally located. In September 2017, Italy reestablished normal diplomatic ties with Egypt, frozen after the temporary withdrawal of the ambassador between April 8, 2016, and September 15, 2017, as a sign of protest for the lack of collaboration coming from the Egyptian authorities in the murder investigation.
Centers of Power
Had Giulio Regeni had the time to conclude his research, potentially fallicitating financial support to the Egyptian street vendors’ trade unions, it would have been an extraordinary example of transnational solidarity between researchers working in difficult and dangerous conditions. Egyptian centers of power, from the police to the dreaded state security service, made sure that did not happen.
The Italian investigators concluded that Regeni was betrayed by his Egyptian contacts, who reported to the police that his research activities were suspicious. Regeni has been monitored for months since his arrival in Cairo. An unknown security outfit apprehended him on January 25, 2016, on his way from his home in Dokki to downtown Cairo. It is not clear whether this happened inside the metro, at the Mohammed Naguib or Nasser station. The recordings of the metro’s cameras have not been provided to the Italian investigators.
He was then subjected to torture, without a formal arrest, for at least six or seven days, by different branches of the local police, military intelligence and national security services, as confirmed by different reports. Several high-ranking generals may have been involved in his arbitrary murder. The same people later tried to divert the attention from the Egyptian authorities by suggesting that Regeni died in a car accident or that he was murdered by criminals.
Maybe we will never know who decided to kill Giulio Regeni. But it is important to continue to demand the names of all the people involved in his murder, as two years later there have still been no arrests, and a fair trial with concrete sentences looks very far away.
Regeni would not have been killed if there had been a strong reaction on the part of the Italian authorities. When Regeni was still alive, there were hidden Italian and Egyptian forces working with the aim of shelving the matter and protecting well-established bilateral ties. Thus, the Italian authorities carry double responsibility. First, they failed to react promptly when Giulio Regeni disappeared and, second, failed to put strong pressure on the Egyptian authorities, eventually reinstating diplomatic ties despite a lack of outcomes in the investigation.
It is misleading to lay the blame at the feet of academic institutions like Cambridge, given that before his disappearance, despite the general context of violence and repression, there was little to suggest that such a brutal murder could take place. Until Giulio Regeni’s death, no foreign researcher had previously been tortured and killed, in the words of Regeni’s mother, “like an Egyptian,” without hope for either truth or justice.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.