Kowtowing to Egypt’s Military Regime Is Letting It Get Away With Murder

Italian prosecutors have called for four Egyptian security agents to be tried for the 2016 kidnapping and murder of labor researcher Giulio Regeni in Cairo. Their appeal follows years in which Egyptian authorities have frustrated efforts to find the killers — and Italian governments have turned a blind eye, for the sake of good relations with Al-Sisi's military regime.

Egyptian defense minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in Cairo, 2013. (Jim Watson / Getty Images)

Recent weeks have seen crucial developments in the case of Cambridge doctoral researcher Giulio Regeni, who was abducted and murdered in Cairo in January 2016. On December 10 the Italian parliament’s committee on the inquiry into his death held hearings with prosecutors Sergio Giarritta and Michele Prestipino Colaiocco from the Tribunal of Rome. The prosecutors have found that there is sufficient evidence to charge four agents of the Egyptian security forces with kidnapping, grievous bodily harm, and homicide.

The Tribunal of Rome’s mandate has coaxed the Italian government to consider a harsher political stance toward the Egyptian authorities — though still only tentatively so. On December 17, foreign minister Luigi di Maio urged the government to demand European support for Italian diplomatic pressure on Egypt to help the search for truth.

The Italian government’s newfound interest for human rights in Egypt may yet signal a forthcoming change in its relations with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime. This could even mean full government support for the judiciary’s call for a stronger diplomatic stance. But in the four long years since Regeni’s death, Italian governments have fallen well short of their proclaimed principles. This period has seen a profound institutional divide between the judiciary, which has relentlessly sought to reconstruct the events of those fatal days, and the various governments that have wavered in front of the cold dictates of realpolitik.

Indeed, the quest for the truth of Giulio Regeni’s death has become entangled in a spiral of overlapping balances of power and frail alliances, characteristic of the major European states’ policy toward the Eastern Mediterranean. Egypt was, and has remained, a central piece in Italy’s strategy to maintain a foothold in the region and to protect its maritime security — perhaps even at the price of compromising on the values of liberty and democracy to which di Maio now so strongly appeals.

The Facts as We Know Them Now

At the moment of his kidnapping in January 2016, Giulio Regeni was conducting academic research in Cairo upon the request of his supervisor at Cambridge University. He received funding for his research from the Antipode Foundation, a British charity that promotes scholarship in the field of radical and critical geography.

Through his contacts at the American University in Cairo, he had become acquainted with local trade unions, which he was studying as part of a project on Egypt’s labor movement. Thanks to the video recording of the parliamentary hearing with the prosecutors, we now know that one of these union members, who worked as an informant for the Egyptian security services, had signaled Regeni’s research as a suspected covert foreign operation.

The agents, according to a witness, were suspicious of Regeni’s academic funding, as they claimed — without evidence — that the Antipode Foundation was a front for a CIA-sponsored operation to start a new revolution. After stalking Regeni for months and illegally searching his room several times, someone in the security agency decided to take action.

On January 25, as Regeni was on his way to meet a friend, he was forcefully apprehended and taken to the local police station. Here, according to witnesses, the agents who abducted Regeni illegally detained him until he was transferred to the headquarters of the Egyptian security services. One last key witness saw Regeni detained in Room 13, the detention cell reserved for suspected foreign agents, with numerous and severe signs of torture.

Regeni’s body was found on February 3 on the outskirts of Cairo. Medical examinations have since confirmed the witness’s account of torture — and indicated that the cause of death suggests that this was a homicide.

The prosecutors have confirmed charges for four Egyptian agents, and dropped the case against one other due to insufficient evidence. General Sabir Tariq, Colonel Usham Helmi and Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim, and Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif are charged with kidnapping, and the latter is also accused of felony murder and grievous bodily harm.

As Prosecutor Colaiocco announced, there will be only one judicial process for the death of Giulio Regeni, administered by the Tribunal of Rome according to Italian laws. According to the prosecutors, the Egyptian judiciary has resolved to respect the independence of judgement of the Italian judiciary. Whether this implies that there will be future collaboration is still in question.

Some of the evidence that has helped to cement the prosecutors’ case has been acquired through collaboration with the Egyptian judiciary. However, most of the evidence and all the witnesses were acquired directly by the Tribunal of Rome, even as the Egyptian magistrate failed or refused to comply with Italian requests for help.

The Egyptian authorities have proven to be hostile right from the start of the investigation. On March 26, an official note from the Egyptian Interior Minister claimed that Regeni was killed during a confrontation with an armed gang specialized in kidnapping foreign citizens. This gang was, according to Egyptian sources, engaged in an armed stand-off with the Egyptian police force on the night of March 25; none of the five members survived.

This story was immediately debunked by witnesses, who claimed the police executed the five men and placed Regeni’s documents on the crime scene in order to halt investigations into Cairo’s security apparatus. The Tribunal of Rome has kept open a separate inquiry against unknown parties as accessory to kidnap and murder; this, it is hoped, will keep open a way to identify those thirteen individuals that the prosecution suspects of involvement, and whose identity has not been confirmed by the Egyptian judiciary.

Political Imperatives

Since the beginning, this murder has been entangled with the internal turmoil of al-Sisi’s regime. After all, Regeni was there to document and research forms of organized civil resistance to the abuses suffered by the Egyptian people since the 2013 coup; he was branded a foreign agitator for his efforts.

Regeni’s family, who have been actively campaigning for justice since 2016, have recently declared that “Giulio has become a mirror that reveals to the whole world how systematic human rights violations are in Egypt.” But once the story was reported by the media, Regeni’s case transcended Egyptian borders and became a matter of international politics.

It magnified the tension between the doctrine of human rights and the connivance of European states in the systematic abuses taking place in Egypt. Italy’s government could no longer turn a blind eye to the domestic affairs of its near-neighbor so easily, as it did in 2014 when it promoted a trade mission of fifty major Italian companies to Cairo.

The price of silence has increased for the Italian government since the Regeni case, and doubly so since February of this year when Patrick Zaki — a student of Egyptian origin at the University of Bologna — was detained without due process in Egypt. He is still today languishing in jail. Yet perhaps the stakes have not been raised high enough.

In June 2020, current prime minister Giuseppe Conte authorized the sale of two ships to Egypt for the value of €2.4 billion. This was, reportedly, part of a broader deal which included also forty-eight planes and other military vehicles, for a forecasted total value of about €9,8 billion.

Italy’s teetering on the verge of a definitive position vis-à-vis Egypt, and the lack of a resolute diplomatic action following the latest revelation of the Tribunal of Rome, is a sign of the political weakness of the Italian state, pulled in opposite directions by its failed Mediterranean policy and its precarious public approval ratings.

Di Maio’s appeal to the European Union confirms what most feared: that Italy is too weak and too exposed to act on its own.

The Chessboard of the Eastern Mediterranean

Italy’s diplomatic and economic relationship with Egypt is only part of the broader picture. The East Mediterranean, a region comprised of the waters in between the island of Sicily to the west and the coasts of Turkey to the east, has in recent years become theater to the resurgence of old conflicts.

With the temporary withdrawal of the United States from the region under the new course set by the Trump administration, ancient geopolitical rivalries found new life in a twenty-first-century fight for hegemony. Italy has found itself more a victim than a real player in this scramble for control, in spite of its advantageous geographical position.

Turkey, France, and Egypt have been active players in this game, with Turkey’s recent investment rivaling, if not overtaking, France’s maritime force. These powers are fighting over the territoriality of the newly discovered hydrocarbon riches of the seabed; but they are also, in true nineteenth-century fashion, fighting a war of position for influence in the region.

There are two hot conflicts and one cold one in the region: respectively, Libya and Syria, and Cyprus. Egypt and Turkey are fighting to maximize their power in what they perceive to be their rightful sphere of influence in their neighborhood, and, conversely, to keep European powers out.

France, on the other hand, is trying to expand its political and military reach in the Mediterranean; Emmanuel Macron’s display of diplomatic strength in Lebanon after the disastrous explosion of August 4, and his recent awarding of the Legion of Honor to al-Sisi, are part of this maneuver. This latter maneuver has been met with outrage by Italy’s public intellectuals: indeed, two former recipients have returned the award in solidarity with Regeni’s family and with the victims of the al-Sisi regime.

Macron’s lobbying of al-Sisi is a result of Egypt’s strategic importance in France and the EU’s recent collision with Turkey. The fronts of conflict are multiple: on one hand, there is Turkey’s strategic closeness with Russia after her purchase of S-400 missiles — in spite of Turkey’s formal NATO membership; and on the other hand, there is the resurfacing of tension between the internationally recognized Cypriot government, and the Turkish-backed Northern Cyprus government, as well as the reignition of Turkish-Greek tensions around issues of maritime territoriality. All of these issues have exacerbated EU-Turkey tensions, and have cast doubt on the future of the EU’s migration pact with Europe.

France and Egypt, on the other hand, have overlapping interests that only seldom align with those of the wider EU bloc. They both wish to limit Turkey’s maritime supremacy and unlawful resource exploitation practices; but they are also finding common ground in the Libyan conflict.

Egypt supports the rebellion of General Khalifa Haftar, who currently controls the east of the country; while the EU, and thus Italy, have backed the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, France has been rather ambiguous in its dealings with Haftar, in solidarity with Egypt and against Turkey’s all-out military support for Tripoli.

The Moral Price of a Failed Policy

Amidst French-Turkish tensions, Italy is particularly exposed to the security and humanitarian challenges brought by the abrupt variation in migration flows. This is because Italy finds itself at the crossroads between the Turkish and the Libyan migration routes to Northern Europe. Italy’s strategic objective in the region is simple: maintaining as much stability as possible, regardless of the means that its allies employ to do so.

It has taken this approach because over the few years every Italian government has been subjected to an incessant and ferocious anti-immigration slander by right-wing parties, Matteo Salvini’s Lega first among them. Curbing the migration flux across the Mediterranean, even by making shameful deals with the Libyan government, has been the number one priority for Rome.

In this strategy, Egypt has been Italy’s only real ally in the region. Italy has retained a noticeable economic influence over Cairo, especially after the hardships the state has faced in recent years. But in spite of the common front against Turkey’s perceived destabilization, France and Italy are actually competing with each other for a greater share of influence over Egypt.

Italy, which has moved to become a global leader among weapon exporters since the end of the Cold War, is lagging behind France in the Egyptian market — the world’s third largest weapons importer in 2018. Nevertheless, Italy remains the largest export market for Egypt, and its fifth major import partner globally.

Only by fully appreciating the strategic importance of Egypt for Italy can we understand why Italian governments have lagged so far behind the extraordinary efforts of the Italian judiciary in pursuing truth and justice for Giulio Regeni.

With decades of successive governments in power for just a few months, prey to the whims of minority parties, Italy has backed itself into the diplomatic blind alley it today finds itself in. Fearful of taking forceful action on its own, at times overshadowed by France, and abandoned by a divided Europe, Rome has navigated the Regeni inquiry paralyzed by the fear of compromising its fragile position in the Mediterranean.

This has come at the expense of protecting its citizens abroad — or even demanding answers for the injustice and abuse perpetrated against them.

In doing so, each government that has come to power since Regeni’s death has failed to adhere to the founding principle of the Italian Republic: to serve and protect the people that have elected them.

Yet, it is not too late for a forceful change in Rome’s foreign policy. It is time to ditch the failing, ambiguous policies of the last decade and to embrace a new course that puts forward the inviolability of human rights abroad as well as at home.