by Pietro Siena
Mohammed Mahmoud is the street that connects the Abdeen Palace with Tahrir Square in Cairo. It is the “street of graffiti,” where this new generation of Egyptians has recorded for eternity the memory of its heroes, the heroes of the January 25 Revolution. On the night of April 10, 2016, a new face appears on its walls, only this face does not belong to someone who took part in the fiery protests that day in 2011. January 25, 2016 marks the fifth anniversary of the overthrowing of Mubarak and the day on which the man behind the face now carved on the “street of graffiti” receives for the last time a message from his mother: “Ciao Giulio. Come va? Tutto bene?”
The body of Giulio Regeni is found just over a week later on the 3rd of February along the side of the highway that leads from Cairo to Alexandria. His body bears signs of torture and imprisonment. Regeni was a twenty-eight-year-old PhD candidate studying at Cambridge University. He was in Egypt researching for his thesis on Egyptian syndicates. His supervisor, Maha Abdelrahman, was the author of Egypt’s Long Revolution, a book which denounced the human rights violations and the Egyptian government’s use of the secret police. That book constituted the starting point of Giulio’s thesis. His objective was to update it to include the conditions of the Egyptian labor unions, of which Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is largely intolerant.
Italy, in the months leading up to Regeni’s murder, had backed el-Sisi’s government. Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, had more than once declared el-Sisi to be a “great leader who can save Egypt.” Italy, as with all the members of the international community, warmly welcomed el-Sisi when, following a military coup, he took the place of Mohamed Morsi, a president with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. El-Sisi represented an opportunity for Western countries to re-establish a strong capitalist presence and to gain an ally in the war against the radicalization of Arab countries.
“The body of Giulio Regeni is found just over a week later on the 3rd of February along the side of the highway that leads from Cairo to Alexandria. His body bears signs of torture and imprisonment“
When Regeni’s corpse is first discovered, Egypt grants Italy the “green-light” to launch an extensive investigation. President el-Sisi declares, “We will treat Giulo’s death as if he was an Egyptian citizen,” but he adds that the investigation will be conducted exclusively by the Egyptian police who will inform the Italians of any developments. While Egypt is still deciding where to start, the Italian authorities hear depositions from three students of the American University of Cairo. In their testimony, they say that Regeni had been frightened. On the 11th of December, while attending a labor assembly, he had caught sight of a man taking pictures of him. Regeni had been added to someone’s black-list, but the question remained to whose.
At first, police suggest he was the victim of a car accident. Weeks later they say he might have been killed by a criminal gang impersonating policemen, a gang of supposed baltagiya, criminals specialized in the kidnapping of foreigners, six of whom have already been killed by the police. Every explanation proves an ad-hoc fabrication of the government. The Italian response is characterized by a strong sense of irritation and is accompanied by one clear question: “Was Giulio arrested by the Egyptian police?” In the meantime, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, pins all his hopes on a meeting to be held in Rome between the Italian and the Egyptian investigators on the 7th of April.
An Egyptian answer to Italy’s queries comes from Mohamed Ibrahim, an official in the media department of Homeland Security, who avers: “There is no connection whatsoever between Regeni and the police or Interior Ministry or Homeland Security. He has never been held in any police station or here. The only time he came into contact with police was when the police officials stamped his passport when he landed in Egypt.” At the meeting in Rome on April 7, the possibility of an unimpeded investigation evaporates behind a curtain of unjustified omissions. The Egyptian authorities refuse to submit phone records into evidence, crucial for the investigation, claiming that it would be in violation of their privacy and their constitution. Gentiloni emerges from the meeting and reports that cooperation from Egypt has been totally inadequate. Two days later, he recalls the Italian Ambassador in Cairo.
On the 21st of April, the international press get involved for the first time. Three Egyptian intelligence officials confess that Giulio had been arrested by the police the day he disappeared. Egyptian involvement is now officially confirmed. While France, Germany, the European Union more broadly, and the US remain silent on this issue, most likely because they are busy defining a new economic partnership with Egypt, the public in Italy are demanding the truth, and Amnesty International has launched a campaign both in Italy and in Egypt. What they ask is #truthforgiulioregeni, but behind this specific request there is a wider denunciation of the human rights violations that everyday Egyptian people receive at the hands of their government and its secret tools of terror.
In the days following the break of relations between Italy and Egypt, the Egyptian police arrest Ahmed Abdallah president of the Egyptian commission on rights and freedoms, who is also a consultant of the Regeni family. With him were arrested many other Egyptian defenders of human rights. Amnesty International reports that some 41,000 Egyptian citizens disappeared during the first two years of el-Sisi’s rule. Thousands have been sentenced to death and killed during the suppression of protests and strikes.
“Giulio is one of us and he has been killed as one of us.” This is the text that now accompanies the etching of Regeni’s face on Mohammed Mahmoud street. The European Union is founded upon the preservation of human rights and freedoms, but denouncing the killing of thousands of Egyptian citizens appears to have been nothing more than an obstacle to the flow of the free market.