How will the conflicting “capitals of hell” impact Egypt’s security and political landscape? Probably not so positively.
The family of the slain Italian student, Giulio Regeni, may consider suing the Egyptian government in an international court, Amnesty International said on Sunday.
Regeni’s parents and representatives of the Amnesty International were attending a demonstration in Milan aimed at keeping the attention high on a case that is causing a diplomatic spat between Rome and Cairo.
“We want truth and justice for Giulio and we denounce torture in Egypt,” said Antonio Marchesi, president of the Italian chapter of Amnesty International.
“Egypt has signed the convention against torture and [its government] could be brought in front of an international court for not abiding by the convention. This is something we may consider.”
The 28-year-old researcher disappeared on January 25, on the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak. Regeni’s body was found a week later in a ditch, bearing the signs of systematic torture compatible with those suffered by other prisoners in police detention, human rights organisations said.
Relations between Italy and Egypt reached a breaking point in early April after Cairo refused to hand over phone records and video material that the Italian prosecutor considered key evidence in the investigation.
…. We must then conclude that the focus in Washington, just as in Paris and Berlin, is on other priorities: oil, weapons, and the war against the Islamic State group, to name a few.”]
Cairo has always denied that its security services were involved in Regeni’s murder. However, lack of cooperation and improbable reconstructions of the murder by the Egyptian prosecutors have raised suspicion that Cairo is manoeuvring to cover up the case. “We should not let the case slide into oblivion,” said Marchesi.
According to several analysts, Rome’s strategy aims to keep international attention on Regeni’s case while at the same time exercise pressure on Egypt to conduct an honest investigation. Italy fears that more aggressive or single-handed measures may just irritate the Egyptian authorities without helping investigators to get any closer to the truth.
However, recent visits to Cairo by Western leaders, who pledged support for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government, have been marked by a deafening silence over the murder of the Italian citizen and the issue of human right abuses in Egypt.
On Saturday, US State Secretary John Kerry met with Sisi in Cairo, a visit described by the Italian edition of the Huffington Post as “quick and with grave omissions”.
“In the world of diplomacy, even silence and inaction can be full of meaning. The US has decided not to utter a single word on this case [Regeni’s murder] …. We must then conclude that the focus in Washington, just as in Paris and Berlin, is on other priorities: oil, weapons, and the war against the Islamic State group, to name a few,” wrote Andrea Purgatori.
Security concerns, the critical role of Egypt in stabilising Libya and multibillion-dollar arms deals have prevailed over any public reference to Regeni’s death. The broader issue of human rights abuses has been either casually referred to or has been “discussed privately”.
Last week, French President Francoise Hollande visited Cairo to sign arms and security contracts worth over $2.2bn, partially to be financed by French banks.”Human rights are not a constraint but also a way to fight against terrorism,” was the only reference Hollande made on the issue at a press conference with Sisi.
Later he told reporters he had brought up the cases of Regeni and French citizen Eric Lang with the Egyptian President.
A day earlier German vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, said in Cairo that Germany will provide “all support to Egypt” and that there are “no restrictions on the provision of arms” as he kicked off discussions over the sale of two submarines to the Sisi government. Gabriel said that Sisi was an “impressive” president, a comment that didn’t go unnoticed among human rights watchers.
Neither the French nor the German officials took heed of a resolution, issued by the European Parliament in March, calling for the suspension of any form of security cooperation and assistance with Egypt “as long as its security apparatus continues to fuel radicalism and violent extremism through its systematic violations committed in full impunity”.
The resolution condemned the human rights situation in Egypt with particular emphasis on the case of Regeni.
As Rome grapples with Cairo’s attempts to sideline the case, Italians keep watching with dismay at Europe’s aloofness. The most distressing of all, though, is probably the position taken by the United Kingdom. Regeni, a student at Cambridge, had been mandated by the British university to conduct research on the Egyptian unions.
The UK Foreign Office waited for over two months before calling for a full investigation into the death of the student. However, it did so only after a petition signed by more than 10,000 people forced the government to take a stand, as requested by the country’s legislation.
“This casts a serious doubt on the credibility of UK universities sending foreign students abroad to conduct research. Regeni was not only an Italian student, he was a student at Cambridge, a UK institution,” said Alberto Negri, a journalist with Il Sole 24 Ore.
An Italian official, who asked not to be named, said Italy was not happy with the way the UK, and Cambridge University, were trying “to stay out of the case”. While the timid support of European officials is quickly dying away, the government of the Italian Prime minister Matteo Renzi has to handle the case unaided.
Three weeks after recalling its ambassador for consultations, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, has gone silent.
“We should remain firm in our position without escalating the tensions,” said Stefano Stefanini, a columnist of daily La Stampa and a former diplomat. “Recalling the ambassador is a strong signal. We should allow Egypt the time to react and avoid sensational moves that would just exasperate the Egyptians without helping us get closer to the truth.” Cairo has the opportunity to hold a fair process and Italy should be careful not to help the hawks by giving way to purely demonstrative reactions, he said.
Stefanini explained that there is a divide within the Egyptian state apparatus between those who prioritise security “at all costs” and those who would like to strengthen the State within the framework of the international justice system.
Italy may succeed in keeping Egypt under pressure with harsher measures, however, Egypt seems to have the upper hand in the case.after the solid backing it received by other Western countries over the past weeks.
Last week, Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, mentioned the possibility of overcoming the obstacles that brought the investigation to a standstill, but he said the inquiry may continue for months.
The Italian government, say analysts, will have to find a difficult balance between diplomacy and firmness.
Measures may range from discouraging travel and tourism to withdrawing from bilateral meetings and cultural exchanges. Asked whether commercial sanctions were also under study, Negri said this would be Italy’s last resort.
“Although commercial relations with Egypt are good, Italy is not an essential business or political partner. Egypt relies heavily on France and Saudi Arabia for political and financial backing as well as for all its key supplies, especially in the military and security field,” he said.
The Egyptian president, says Negri, would never jeopardise his relations with the security apparatus to appease the Italians. He would sooner turn to other European partners such as the French to supplant any commercial needs.
According to Amnesty International, some 41,000 people have disappeared in the first two years of General Sisi’s rule. Thousands have been killed during the suppression of protests, strikes and by the death sentence.