Truth for Giulio

The torture of a foreign student has become the synecdoche for uncounted thousands of people now in Egyptian prisons or graves, writes Scott McLemee.

May 4, 2016

Three months ago, Inside Higher Ed reported that the body of Giulio Regeni -- a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge and a visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo who disappeared on Jan. 25 -- had been found on a roadside in Egypt with cigarette burns and knife wounds indicative of torture. “His research was on trade unions and labor rights,” the item noted, “a sensitive subject in Egypt.”

The date of Regeni's disappearance bears noting: it was the fifth anniversary of the antigovernment protests that launched what is known in Egypt as the January 25 Revolution. The country’s short-lived democratic opening gave way to the military dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In March, the Financial Times pointed out that human rights groups “have documented a sharp rise in restrictions on basic freedoms” over the past two years, with “an increase in torture and deaths in custody, which some analysts say is a sign that the security establishment feels empowered under Mr. Sisi.”

Developments in the case over the past month have not reduced suspicion that the Italian student’s death came at the hands of said Egyptian security establishment. Egyptian security forces have explained his murder as the work of a criminal gang, all members of which died in a shoot-out a few weeks later.

Another very different scenario emerges from an investigation by the Reuters news service. According to a half dozen sources in the Egyptian police and intelligence services, the student was arrested as part of a security sweep meant to quell the anniversary-day protests. After being briefly detained by police, he was placed in the custody of Egyptian homeland security. Citing a senior forensic official, Reuters reported in late April that Regeni suffered “seven broken ribs, signs of electrocution on his penis, traumatic injuries all over his body and a brain hemorrhage.” The news agency had previously quoted a source in the public prosecutor’s office as saying that “the wounds on the body occurred over different intervals of between 10-14 hours” over a course of up to seven days.

Italy -- which is Egypt’s biggest trading partner in Europe and its third largest in the world -- withdrew its ambassador from Cairo in early April. Egyptian officials have denied all charges, suggesting that one or more foreign intelligence agencies are exploiting Regeni’s death or that the student himself was a covert operative. Meanwhile, they have launched a new investigation -- of Reuters.

All the attention and protest must flummox the Sisi regime’s security establishment, which has of late had every reason to feel not just empowered but invulnerable.

The military coup in July 2013 unleashed what Amnesty International called “state violence on an unprecedented scale” -- much of it initially directed against the Muslim Brotherhood, although it became evident soon enough that charges of membership or sympathy were often a matter of convenience. Labor unions, student groups and secular protest organizations have been targeted. Last year, an Egyptian court handed down a death sentence for Emad Shahin, a professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo, on the grounds of support for the Brotherhood. The accusation elicited a memorable response from Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University: “I would sooner believe that Vice President Biden is a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army than I would give credence to the charges against Emad.”

No regime at war with its own population is likely to treat the visiting foreigner as an innocent bystander. A report issued last month by the Cairo-based Association for Free Thought and Expression suggests that extreme suspicion of foreign researchers is a matter of routine for Egypt’s security apparatus, with surveillance and harassment as predictable consequences. But if Giulio Regeni’s murder proves to be a severe case of xenophobic paranoia at work, in other respects, it looks like just another data point in the regime’s ghastly statistics.

In January alone, according to El Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in Cairo, there were “195 deaths, 42 cases of torture, including eight people who were tortured to death, 60 cases of medical neglect, 20 cases of group violence by the police, 66 forced disappearances, while 32 people were reported to have reappeared in various places of detention, in some cases months after they vanished.” Egyptian authorities closed El Nadeem Centre in February -- a move that one Amnesty International official called “a barefaced attempt to shut down an organization which has been a bastion for human rights and a thorn in the side of the authorities for more than 20 years.”

Relations between Washington and Cairo cooled following the initial post-coup crackdown, if only for a brief period. About a third of the $1.3 billion package in U.S. military aid was restored by June 2014, and the alliance was decidedly on the mend by last fall, when Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo. “Some analysts say the U.S. is prioritizing security and stability,” the BBC noted, “without taking democracy and human rights totally off the table.” Presumably that was a case of ironic British understatement.

The Truth for Giulio Regeni campaign launched by Amnesty International’s Italian organization in February has spread to the U.K., where Regeni’s friends and colleagues at Cambridge recently held a protest expressing frustration at the government’s failure to press Egypt for details on the student’s death.

Here in the United States, “Truth for Giulio Regeni” probably won't have as much resonance, but any support for the campaign is likely to have a disproportionate impact. “Egypt's Newest Dictator Was Made in the USA,” as the consummately inside-the-Beltway journal Politico once put it -- a nod to the strong ties between the Egyptian and American military elites established during the era of Anwar Sadat. The potential for embarrassment on both sides of this alliance is perhaps the one advantage ordinary people possess.

And while it is unfortunate and unjust that the torture of a single foreign student must be the synecdoche for uncounted thousands of people now in Egyptian prisons or graves, we should make the most of it. One place to start would be letters to the Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt with copies to the U.S. Department of State. The website Egypt Solidarity is a good source of information on recent developments, and for anyone especially concerned with threats to Egyptian artists, writers, professors and students, the Association for Free Thought and Expression is indispensable.


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