MENASource|News, Analysis, Perspectives

February 26, 2016
The ambiguous circumstances surrounding the tragic murder of Cambridge University’s doctoral candidate, Giulio Regeni, in Egypt have led to much speculation over who was behind the Italian student’s death. Many of these explanations appear to serve special interests, rather than trying to find the truth about the young researcher’s death and ensure the arrest of the culprits. The hypotheses come mainly from key stakeholders—Italy and Egypt—with the US and British press also playing a role in propagating their own theories.

The most common explanation for Regeni’s death, favored by much of the international and Italian press, human rights organizations, the academic world, and Regeni’s colleagues is that it came at the hands of the Egyptian security service. According to international reports, Italian police have found an eyewitness who says the night he disappeared, Regeni was stopped by plainclothes officers while on his way downtown.

The Egyptian Ministry of Interior in its most recent statements, has argued that Regeni’s murder may have been the result of “revenge.” It points to his extensive list of contacts in the country, despite having lived there for only six months. In their most recent statements, Italian authorities have expressed dissatisfaction with the Egyptian investigation, with Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni calling for “more effective” cooperation and access to evidence.

Targeting Italy-Egypt Relations

If proven true, Egyptian security culpability would compel the Italian government, pushed by the uproar of indignation from Italian public opinion, to call on Egyptian authorities to provide an independent investigation, the results of which could damage diplomatic and commercial ties. The recent discovery of Egypt’s largest gas field by Italian company ENI makes Italian interest in maintaining positive relations with the Egyptian government paramount. Italy itself, while reportedly privately urging Egyptian authorities to follow up on Regeni’s case hours after his disappearance, waited a week before publicizing the case. The reverse is also true. Italy is an important commercial partner for Egypt with numerous and well-entrenched ties between the two business communities. With a trade exchange volume of $6 billion as of 2014, only the United States exceeds Italy as a commercial partner to Egypt.

As a result, a hypothesis to explain Regeni’s death as a means to damage interests between the two countries has emerged. Italian newspaper La Stampa argues that there is a fragmentation of powers in Egypt, each anchored to business and international interests. Upset by the development of ties between Egypt and Italy, some of these interests may have had rogue security officials on their payroll murder the Italian researcher and dump his body in a way that it could be easily found with the purpose of embarrassing the Egyptian regime and cause a rift in its relations with Italy. Therefore, for Italy, strengthening its relations with the regime would be the right thing to do, not the contrary.

Embarrassing Egypt

In a February 9 interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa, Egyptian activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim argued that the Muslim Brotherhood itself could have been behind Regeni’s murder. He argued that Islamists replicated typical security services modus operandi to cause an international uproar against the Egyptian regime, he said. The theory of Brotherhood involvement became further convoluted when Youm7, an Egyptian newspaper close to the regime, cited a mistranslated Italian article, arguing that the Brotherhood was behind Regeni’s murder. The Youm7 article was then picked up by several Italian newspapers, with no reference to the original Italian article.

Academic Research in Egypt

Members of the academic world point to the fact that, while Regeni was an Italian citizen, he was a Cambridge University PhD candidate and affiliated with the American University in Cairo. He was, de facto, a member of the Western academic community and his murder was directed precisely against that community to intimidate it and force it to withdraw from its criticism of the regime.

In a letter to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom described Regeni’s murder as “the most recent, if the most deadly example of the growing danger posed by the current political climate in Egypt to all those engaged in academic work.” The letter continued, “The climate of repression and intimidation in which our colleagues in Egypt – Egyptian and non-Egyptian—have tried to persevere in conducting their academic work has only continued to deteriorate. Indeed, Regeni’s murder, far from an aberration, is in fact a predictable outcome of the progression of state repression of academics and students.”

Accusations Regeni Was a Spy

International and Italian press have also put forward the theory that Regeni was caught up in a police sweep during the fifth anniversary of the January 25 uprising, a period of intense police presence in the streets. They say Regeni, reacting to his arrest, angered the officers whose heavy handed manners got out of hand. In a February 12 article, the New York Times quoted an unnamed Egyptian security official saying “He was very rude and acted like a tough guy.”

The nature of Regeni’s work also fanned the flames of this rumor. The Italian student was researching labor movements in Egypt—a topic of some sensitivity—and was writing for an Italian leftist paper, Il Manifesto, albeit under a pseudonym. American University in Cairo history professor Khaled Fahmy told Canada’s CBC that while Regeni was not targeted personally, that once he was in custody, the discovery of a foreigner fluent in Arabic likely aroused suspicion. The theory was picked up by Italian newspapers, with Regeni’s own family forced to deny rumors that the Italian student was a spy. This theory, however, does not explain why his body was dumped where it could be easily found, if his death was in fact accidental.

More Than One Casualty

With the scant information available, it is impossible to determine which theory may be true—whether Regeni’s death was deliberate or accidental, whether it was at the hands of rogue security officers, or if he was killed by someone else. Nevertheless this tragic murder forces upon us some reflections. The first is that—based on reports by members of the press, their interviews of ordinary citizens, statements by local and international human rights organizations, and political activists—the disappearance, torture, and death of detainees are commonplace. The Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture reported that over 600 people were tortured in detention in 2015. In November of that year, alone, the group documented 49 cases of torture in police stations, nine of which ended in death. These stories rarely make international headlines.

The second reflection is on the need for the international community to reconsider its current stance toward the Egyptian regime. Regeni’s murder has brought to light the repression and brutality that has befallen Egypt since the July 2013 coup. In his most recent statements to Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry’s defended the US decision to waive human rights conditions on aid to Egypt, saying, “We've got a huge interest in making sure that Egypt doesn't go down into a more difficult status than it is.” However, it is time for the international community to adopt a policy toward the Egyptian regime based on an evaluation of the effective respect for rule of law and human rights, instead of taking its declarations at face value. If this change takes place, Regeni’s death may not have been in vain.

Karim Mezran is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North Africa.

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