How will the conflicting “capitals of hell” impact Egypt’s security and political landscape? Probably not so positively.
A year ago, on February 3, 2016, the passengers of a minivan on the busy highway between Cairo and Alexandria found the body of a man in a ditch on the side of the road. The corpse, naked from the waist down, bore the signs of brutal and unrelenting torture; the face deformed and swollen by a severe beating and the burns of electric shocks.
Next to it lay a military blanket. Whoever had dumped that body had chosen a peculiar location. Less than two kilometres away, on that same desert road, several watchtowers guard the perimeter of a base of Egypt’s security services.
Giulio Regeni was a 28-year-old student at Cambridge University who had disappeared from Cairo nine days earlier, on the fifth anniversary of the revolution that in 2011 ousted long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak.
That day, the city was locked down, the military and the intelligence services were patrolling all the major landmarks and people were keeping indoors for fear of the random arrests by the secret police.
Regeni, an Italian citizen, felt safe enough to go out, despite the sinister atmosphere that pervaded Cairo that evening. But he never arrived at the appointment with a friend.
In the following days, the Egyptian minister of interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar told the Italian ambassador that there was “no trace” of an Italian citizen called Giulio Regeni in Cairo.
On that fateful day, Paola and Claudio Regeni were anxiously waiting news of their son in a Cairo hotel room when Ambassador Maurizio Massari came to break the terrible truth to them: Giulio had been found dead.
The corpse in the ditch in the outskirts of Cairo didn’t carry any documents. The tortures it had endured made it unrecognisable to his own mother. As Paola Regeni later said, Giulio’s face carried “all the evil of the world” and she had been able to identify her son “only from the tip of his nose”.
Mutilations, burns, broken bones, deep cuts were proof of a slow and painful death.
But the Egyptian authorities knew that body was Regeni’s when they called Ambassador Maurizio Massari to tell him of their finding. How they could have been so certain of Giulio’s identity, before anyone had yet identified him, is just one of the many questions that – for the past year – the Egyptian police forces have dodged.
A year on, we can say beyond any reasonable doubt that Regeni's death is a case of state-sponsored murder.
The initial reluctance of the Egyptian authorities to cooperate and the invention of a series of implausible stories about Regeni’s involvement in a car accident, in a homosexual spat and later in a case of drug trafficking spurred a diplomatic crisis with Italy that lasts to this day.
Confronted by the Italian investigators and the insisting demands of the Italian government for more cooperation, the Egyptian authorities decided to follow a different strategy. They would ration the information to be shared with the Italians, dilute their response in an effort to buy time and cover up an embarrassing case that had taken the shape of a state-sponsored murder.
“A year on, we can say beyond any reasonable doubt that Regeni’s death is a case of state-sponsored murder,” said Carlo Bonini, an investigative journalist at La Repubblica who has followed Regeni’s case closely.
“There is a state motivation because the Egyptians believed he was a spy. And there is the state apparatus behind the forced disappearance, torture and killing of Regeni. All the elements in the probe point in the direction of the Minister of Interior,” Bonini told Al Jazeera.
Student or spy?
Cairo’s intelligence services believed Regeni was a spy for a foreign agency and they were determined to find out whom he was working for. His research on the Egyptian unions for Cambridge University, his contacts, his frequent meetings with unions’ members as well as representatives of the political opposition who were already under surveillance, triggered the attention of the Ministry of Interior and its National Security Agency (NSA).
But Cairo has always hosted a thriving foreign student community with thousands of expatriate researchers and professors living in the capital to conduct their studies and research.
Never before had one of them been kidnapped, brutally tortured and killed. Why would the Egyptian intelligence services decide to arrest a student from one of the world’s most renowned universities, torture him for seven consecutive days, as the autopsy later revealed, and take the risk of prompting a diplomatic crisis with Italy and the UK?
“There are many unanswered questions in this case. The brutality and the length of the torture that Regeni suffered reminds me of some mafia-like victims, who were murdered to send out a warning message to someone,” said Professor Massimo Campanini, an authority in Islamic Studies and a profound expert on Egypt’s society.
“The second aspect that deserves further attention is the total silence of Britain on this case. Regeni was not only an Italian, he was a Cambridge student. The university’s reluctance to fully cooperate in the investigation is staggering.”
Regeni’s tutor, Dr Maha Abdelrahman, was approached by the public prosecutor at Giulio’s funeral in Italy and asked for questioning. She responded that the investigators would be required to follow “the appropriate channels” to obtain any further information they needed.
Whether she granted a second meeting when the prosecutors flew to Cambridge is unclear. While Italian sources say she didn’t show up for questioning, Cambridge said in a statement: “We believe that Maha answered in full the supplementary questions they provided.”
The investigators had to initiate an international rogatory in order for the university and Dr Abdulrahman to provide the information they needed on Giulio’s mandate in Egypt. In September those documents arrived, more than six months after Regeni’s death, but Public Prosecutor Giuseppe Pignatone considered them insufficient.
“What was the exact scope of Giulio’s research and which directives, guidelines and contacts he had received from his tutor are fundamental in the understanding of why Regeni found himself under the surveillance of the security services,” said Campanini.
Al Jazeera asked Cambridge for an interview with Dr Abderahman, but the request was turned down. However in a written statement, Cambridge said the tutor remains ready to talk to the Italian prosecutors should they make a request “through the appropriate channels”.
“The university has always been, and remains, ready to help with any further requests for information or assistance,” a Cambridge spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
Family and friends have repeatedly rejected claims by several academic and media outlets that Giulio might have been a spy or might have been used by foreign intelligence services without being aware of it. Regeni‘s tragic death, they insisted, was the result of the regime’s security paranoia. He was trying to secure a grant for £10,000 ($12,600) from UK institution Antipode, which funds social inclusion projects.
The funding was meant for the street vendors’ union, whose activities Regeni had been closely watching as part of his postgraduate research. However, the foreign funding of unions and civil society groups is a sensitive issue in Egypt, where the regime fears the foreign money would be used to topple it.
The last clues into the murder have emerged from a video that the Italian public prosecutor obtained from his Egyptian counterpart.
The footage, which was taped just three weeks before Regeni’s disappearance, shows the head of the street vendors’ union, Mohammed Abdallah, insistently asking Regeni to help him get the grant for his personal use.
“It is not my money. I cannot use it like that because I am an academic,” Regeni is heard replying in Arabic.
According to the investigators in Rome, the footage was filmed by using a hidden camera that Abdallah was given by the Egyptian police.
At the end of the video Abdallah is heard saying: “I finished filming, come take the equipment off me.” The same Abdallah admitted that he reported Regeni to the police days before he disappeared. “I grew suspicious because he asked too many questions,” the vendor told the Egyptian news website Shorouk. “I filmed Regeni and reported him to the police, because I wanted to prove he was a spy“.
Following Abdallah’s statements, Egyptian officials at the NSA have confirmed that Abdallah had brought Regeni’s case to their attention on January 7, 2016, but the investigation was dropped within three days as nothing relevant had emerged against the Italian student.
The Italian prosecutor believes Abdallah was an informant of the NSA who had been reporting on Regeni much earlier than January 6. The NSA had opened a file on the Italian student since December 2015 and two agents were constantly in touch with the union’s leader until January 23, two days before Regeni’s disappearance, as proved by Abdallah’s phone records.
The prosecutor is investigating the role of the two NSA agents as well as three other Egyptian officials, who in March 2015 were involved in the staged shooting of a five-member criminal gang that the ministry of interior indicated was responsible for Regeni’s murder. Egyptian prosecutors later established the five men were innocent.
After months of lukewarm contacts between investigators of the two countries, Egypt’s public prosecutor Nabil Sadek decided to share essential information related to Abdallah’s involvement in the case and the role of officials within the NSA.
He has also allowed Italian and German experts to travel to Cairo to examine CCTV footage as part of the probe. “Lately I have seen very useful signs of cooperation from Egypt. I hope they will develop,” said Italy’s Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
The inconvenient truth
These latest developments may signal the Egyptian Presidency’s intention to close the case, but the truth about Regeni’s murder couldn’t be more remote, a former Egyptian official told Al Jazeera.
“They will find some scapegoats, maybe some police officers, put the blame on them and close this case once and for all. We’ll never know the truth because the truth leads directly up to the office of the president,” said Colonel Omar Afifi in an interview with Al Jazeera from his home in Washington.
A former investigator at the Egyptian ministry of interior, Afifi said the inconvenient truth is that the highest ranks within the State apparatus are involved in Regeni’s murder.
“Nobody can touch a foreigner in Egypt unless the order comes from one of these people: the president, his chief of staff, the head of the military intelligence or – at the least – the minister of interior. This has been the policy in our country for the past 30 years and it remains so to this day.”
The day after Regeni’s body was discovered, Afifi published a detailed account of what had happened to the Italian student. He described how Regeni had been first arrested and interrogated by the investigative department in Giza led by General Khaled Shalaby, and later moved to the headquarters of the NSA in Madinat Nasr led by General Mohammed Sharawy, upon an order by the powerful minister of interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar.
According to Afifi, the President’s chief of staff Abbas Kamel removed the case from the NSA and handed it over to the military intelligence that killed Regeni under torture. “I don’t have evidence, I have information. But I trust the sources I have. All they told me has found confirmation months later,” he told Al Jazeera.
Afifi’s account bears many similarities to a detailed anonymous report sent to the Italian embassy in Switzerland in April 2016. According to the document, Regeni had been under the surveillance of the NSA since his arrival in September 2015.
But the president’s office took the case from the NSA and gave it to the military intelligence, fuelling the existing tensions between the two agencies and turning Regeni into an issue of contention.
Intelligence agencies in Egypt have pledged allegiance to different parties and are striving to assert their control over the country.
Giulio and hundreds of Egyptians
Regeni’s case has become a symbol of the clampdown on human rights in Egypt, Amnesty International said. “The level of repression we are witnessing is unprecedented. It cannot be compared to even the darkest days of Mubarak’s regime,” said Mohammed Ahmed, a researcher on Egypt at Amnesty International.
Preventive arrests and forced disappearances have increased after the appointment of interior minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar in March 2015, Ahmed said.
“Since Abdel Ghaffar’s appointment we have seen an increase in the number of disappearances, with three to four people going missing every day. There has been a change of policy, whereby the ministry order precautionary arrests in an attempt to prevent protests and assemblies. People are taken from their homes, from the streets or from work.”
The ministry of interior is also targeting journalists and members of NGOs, by preventing them from travelling or seizing their assets.
The number of political prisoners is on the rise. “According to government figures the number of political prisoners is approximately 36,000, twice the number of 2011, prior to the revolution. However, this may be a conservative figure. NGO’s estimates put the number at 60,000,” Ahmad told Al Jazeera.
Paola Regeni, who is helping Amnesty raise awareness on human rights abuses in Egypt, said her battle for the truth will continue. “This is not yet the time for us to grieve. It’s the time for justice. For Giulio and all the ‘Giulios of Egypt’. We’ll keep fighting for them as well.”