Denying the obvious in Egypt

The killing of postgraduate student Giulio Regeni, apparently at the hands of Egypt's security apparatus, has put the Sisi regime on the spot. In the face of an international outcry, the regime is responding with a mixture of bluster, conspiracy theories and diversionary tactics. 

The Sisi regime and its supporters are scrabbling to cast doubt on the most obvious and most probable explanation for the killing of Giulio Regeni: that he was tortured to death by the Egyptian state’s security apparatus.

Regeni, a 28-year-old Italian studying for a doctorate at Cambridge University, disappeared in Cairo on January 25, the anniversary of the revolution that ousted President Mubarak. Nine days later his horribly mutilated body was found in a ditch on the Cairo-Alexandria road. 

Along with bruises and broken bones, Regeni's body showed the classic signs of torture. There were burns from cigarettes and electric shocks, and nails had been ripped from his fingers and toes. Regardless of that, the Egyptian interior ministry initially said he had died in a road accident.

A fake witness

A second explanation was that Regeni had died in a fight. A "witness" called Mohammed Fawzi came forward, claiming to have seen him arguing with a foreigner outside the Italian consulate on the day before he disappeared. According to Fawzi, the quarrel "looked like it was going to turn physical".

It later emerged that Fawzi was nowhere near the Italian consulate at the time of the supposed altercation, but by then he had already told his imaginary story on a pro-regime TV channel (having reportedly been driven to the studio in an interior ministry car). 

Regeni: "witness claimed to have seen him arguing

Other – more exotic – theories involve plots against the Sisi regime. President Sisi himself has noted that Regeni's death coincided with a visit to Egypt by an Italian business delegation. Coming at a time when relations between the two countries were "experiencing unprecedented political and economic momentum", this led him to suggest "there were parties with an interest in blocking this cooperation".

Sisi mentioned no names but others have interpreted his words as pointing a finger at his chief foe, the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian journalist Wael Eskandar discusses that theory in a blog post and concludes:

There are many benefits and motivations of having Islamists kill Regeni instead of the regime. It would confirm the bias that Islamists are an absolute evil, it would offer hope that while Egyptian police do this [i.e. torturing] to Egyptians, there is still hope they are responsible enough not to do this to foreigners. 

But in reality, many also understand that the police would never own up if they had done this and the international implications if they did would be huge, and would mean that this is indeed a criminal regime that is far too brutal and ugly to carry the country forward.

It is fear of confronting such a reality that drives some to believe that it isn't the police, although I'm very certain many know deep down inside, just like I did when I examined the first murder, that Egyptian security forces the most likely culprits of this heinous crime. 

In that connection, it's probably worth pointing out that on the day Regeni disappeared, Egyptian security forces were on especially high alert, to prevent street protests marking the anniversary of the revolution. If anyone other than the security forces had been planning to abduct him, January 25 would not have been a sensible day to attempt it.

A reluctant investigation

Alongside the threadbare efforts to blame some non-regime culprit, the Egyptian authorities' role in the investigation is scarcely suggestive of innocence. Italian judicial sources, for instance, have been complaining of "limited" cooperation: almost a month after Regeni's death they had still received no information of value from Egyptian officials, according to Reuters.

Reuters also reported that police in Cairo were not making the sort of routine enquiries that would be expected if they were seriously trying to find an unknown killer:

"Shopkeepers in Regeni's neighbourhood of Cairo said there were no signs that police in the area had been questioning people since his disappearance or death."

Meanwhile, the Egyptian authorities have got themselves in a tangle over the autopsy conducted by Hisham Abdel Hamid, director of the Department of Forensic Medicine. In the last week of February, according to multiple sources, Hamid – accompanied by two colleagues – met officials in the public prosecutor's office and told them Regeni's injuries had been inflicted in stages, over a period of up to seven days. Reuters reported:

"The findings are the strongest indication yet that Giulio Regeni was killed by Egyptian security services because they point to interrogation methods such as burning with cigarettes in intervals over several days, which human rights groups say are the hallmark of the security services."

Two prosecution sources and another in the forensic medicine department confirmed to Reuters that the meeting took place. This was contradicted by the government news agency, quoting a justice ministry official who denied it had taken place. Hamid, who had declined to talk to Reuters before the story was published, denied it entirely a day later, accusing Reuters of carelessness. The Egypt Independent reported:

Hisham Abdel Hamid ... said on Wednesday that he had not met with prosecutors or made statements to them regarding signs of torture on student's body, as suggested by Reuters. He also denied making any statements that indicated that Regeni had been tortured over a period of several days in order to gain information.

"That piece of news is totally fabricated and untrue," Abdel Hamid said in a statement on Wednesday, urging media outlets to be more careful ...

It seems likely that Hamid had been leaned on by the authorities, but the denial made him look ridiculous. The Italian ambassador, having inspected Regeni's body in the mortuary, had already confirmed evidence of torture (and a second autopsy in Rome later provided more gruesome details). 


Hisham Abdel Hamid: denied statements about torture

Diversion tactics

The regime has also been engaging in some rather transparent diversionary tactics which, again, don't look like the actions of an innocent party. 

In an interview with the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, Sisi tried to equate Regeni's hideous death with the case of Adel Moawwad, a 53-year-old Egyptian chef whose family reported him missing in Italy last October. Although Italian police have so far failed to trace Moawwad, it's unclear whether any crime has been committed and there is certainly no reason to suppose he has been abducted and tortured. Nevertheless, the Egyptians have been using this to "neutralise" Italy's demands for cooperation over Regeni by making demands of their own for cooperation over Moawwad.

In a similar vein, regime supporters have been attacking the European parliament after it passed a resolution calling for "a swift, transparent and impartial joint investigation into the case of Mr Regeni in accordance with international obligations, and for every effort to be made to bring the perpetrators of the crime to justice as soon as possible". The resolution went on to express "grave concern" that Regeni's case was not an isolated incident, "but that it occurred within a context of torture, death in custody and enforced disappearances across Egypt in recent years".

The Egyptian parliament retaliated with a statement condemning the European parliament for “groundless accusations” and Ali Abdel-Al, the parliament's speaker, accused the EU of showing disrespect for Egypt's sovereignty. 

The sovereignty argument, a traditional standby for regimes that get into trouble over human rights abuses, isn't really applicable in this case anyway. Regeni was an EU citizen, so the EU is entitled to make representations, and Egypt – besides being a party to the UN Convention Against Torture, has an Association Agreement with the EU. The latter grants trade privileges to Egypt but requires Egypt to respect human rights.

Apparently based on the time-honoured principle that nobody ever criticises Egypt unless paid to do so, claims also began circulating that the 588 MEPs who voted for the European parliament's resolution had been bribed to support it by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ahmed Moussa, the TV host who had earlier interviewed fake witness Mohammed Fawzi, suggested this on his show and others joined in – including Hamdy Bakhait (a prominent MP, conspiracy theorist and former army general). Egyptian blogger Zeinobia commmented: "I got tons of MPs' statements in my inbox full of similar claims." Meanwhile, the semi-official al-Ahram newspaper published an article telling readers how the European parliament had "fallen into the trap" of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Bribing 588 members of European parliament would be an extraordinary feat for the Muslim Brotherhood, and also an unnecessarily expensive one considering that only 376 votes were needed to ensure the resolution passed.


Al-Ahram: EU parliament fell into Brotherhood "trap"


A background of disappearances and torture

Regeni's death, the EU resolution said, was not an isolated case but "occurred within a context of torture, death in custody and enforced disappearances across Egypt in recent years, in clear violation of Article 2 of the EU-Egypt Association Agreement".

According to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a local NGO, there were at least 340 cases of enforced disappearance between August and November last year. The Nadeem Centre in Cairo, which helps victims of torture (and which the regime is trying to close down), reported 464 cases of enforced disappearance in 2015. According to Nadeem, 137 people died in detention and nearly 700 were reportedly tortured. Writing in Daily News Egypt, Wael Eskandar said:

"There are some cases where security agencies have detained individuals in the presence of their families and then denied knowledge of their whereabouts. Some, like Ashraf Shehata, have been forcibly disappeared for over two years. Even those whose whereabouts are known can very easily die in police stations, such as the infamous Matariya police station, where 14 people died of torture in 2014 and 2015."

Regeni's case bears some similarities to that of Mohamed el-Gendy, a 23-year-old Egyptian activist who was arrested in 2013 and taken to Gabal Ahmar, a state security camp on the outskirts of Cairo, for interrogation. After three days' detention he was taken to hospital in a coma, where he died. As with Regeni, the interior ministry claimed he had been found injured in a street after being hit by a car.

Despite abundant evidence of Egyptians being tortured, the authorities usually show more restraint when dealing with foreigners – though a French man, Eric Lang, died in police custody in 2013. Lang, however, was reportedly beaten to death by fellow prisoners rather than the police themselves.

Assuming that Regeni had indeed been detained by a section of the security apparatus, this raises the possibility that whoever interrogated him was either unaware of the unspoken rule about treating foreigners more lightly or simply ignored it.


Mohamed el-Gendy in Tahrir Square:  three days' detention left him unconscious and dying


Why target Regeni?

But why would the authorities be suspicious of him in the first place? Regeni's academic research focused on Egypt's independent trade union movement and, according to Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, it was a perfectly legitimate topic:

"I personally know several other students in various universities who have worked or are presently working on PhD theses on the topic of the Egyptian labour movement. That is to say that there was absolutely nothing extraordinary in Giulo Regeni’s research."

However, the Egyptian authorities may have viewed it differently. Regeni had developed plenty of contacts among trade unionists and in an article written shortly before his death (and published posthumously) he described their efforts to organise themselves in the face of government repression.

For Regeni, independent trade union activity was not just about workers' rights but potentially had a broader political significance. He ended his article by saying:

Strikes against the revocation of benefits are mostly unrelated to each other ... but still they represent a significant development, for at least two reasons: For one, albeit in a manner not entirely explicit, they challenge the heart of the neoliberal transformation of the country, which has undergone a major acceleration since 2004, and which the 2011 popular uprisings and their slogan, “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice,” have substantially dented.

The other aspect is that in an authoritarian and repressive context under General Sisi, the simple fact that there are popular and spontaneous initiatives that break the wall of fear is itself a major spur for change.

The unions’ defiance of the state of emergency and the regime’s appeals for stability and social order – justified by the “war on terrorism” – signifies, even if indirectly, a bold questioning of the underlying rhetoric the regime uses to justify its own existence and its repression of civil society.

This interface between trade unionism and politics is an obvious area of concern for the regime. In an article for the Washington Post, Jean Lachapelle (who has also been doing field research in Egypt) explains that the authorities have traditionally sought to maintain "a sharp distinction between political and economic types of unrest". Under Mubarak, for example, "labour protests were often tolerated or ignored as long as protesters did not make political claims".

Lachapelle also highlights a second factor that may have had a bearing on Regeni's disappearance and death:

Like social scientists, the Egyptian authorities developed theories for the explosion of popular unrest in 2011. While political scientists have emphasised the spontaneity, courage and agency of ordinary citizens ... Egyptian security forces believe that the unrest was steered by well-organized political forces capable of manipulating the average citizen for political ends ...

In the United States, these views are often dismissed as classic authoritarian propaganda. However, my research suggests that such anxieties are real and inform the way the Egyptian regime perceives threats. In particular, they make security forces highly attentive to ties between “foreign elements” and “mobilisable” sectors of society.

It is possible that Regeni’s research activities were misinterpreted as groundwork for preparing a new uprising. He had built ties with local actors, attended meetings with labour activists and spoke excellent Arabic — an essential skill for a researcher, yet one that unfortunately tends to raise suspicions. 

On that basis, it's easy to see why the Egyptian authorities would have wanted to question Regeni. But it's doubtful whether those in the upper echelons of the security apparatus – knowing the likely international repercussions – would have wanted him tortured. So it may be that his interrogators, lower down in the ranks, used more "initiative" than they were supposed to. One indication that this is what actually happened comes from instructions issued by the Interior Ministry shortly after Regeni's death and reported in the Egyptian media.

The instructions said that the arrest of "any foreigner" must be reported to State Security and the Interior Minister's office immediately, before taking any further action.