An Italian student’s death in Egypt and now we care?

Will Regeni’s brutal murder force Egypt’s Western partners to demand justice for Egyptians who suffer a similar fate?

Pall bearers carry the casket containing the body of Giulio Regeni during the funeral serevice in Fiumicello [EPA]
Pall bearers carry the casket containing the body of Giulio Regeni during the funeral serevice in Fiumicello [EPA] [EPA]

How ugly it seems today: “Italy welcomes ‘strategic’ partner Egypt in from the cold“; “Egypt’s Sisi and Italy’s Renzi Agree to Continue Cooperation Against Terrorism“; “Renzi Hails Sisi as Great Leader” and “the only leader who can save Egypt”.

If the latest reports on the autopsy of Italian graduate student and journalist Giulio Regeni are accurate, he remained alive for about nine days after his kidnapping by Egyptian security personnel, during which time he was relentlessly tortured and beaten with “inhuman violence” before being killed and dumped on the road with the aim of making it look like a “car accident”.

Nine days. During which time he could have been saved [It.], had the Egyptians or Italian governments decided it was important enough to do so. It is hard to believe, despite ongoing denials by Egyptian officials, that senior security personnel were unaware of his captivity, and of the urgent requests by Italian officials to try to locate him.

Egyptian doctors protest against police abuse

If that were true, it would suggest the kind of violently competing and independent power centres that are more characteristic of a failing 1990s-era sub-Saharan African state than the kind of cohesive regime that has long defined Egyptian politics.

More likely, senior officials knew about Regeni’s abduction – La Stampa’s Cairo correspondent, Francesco Grignetti, convincingly argues that Regeni was aware that he was “attenzionato” (that is, under the watchful eye of the pervasive security services) – and either thought it was a good idea to make an example of him, or didn’t think the Italians would make more than a perfunctory fuss about it.

A brutal but efficient calculus

This is probably not the sort of relationship Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi expected when he became the first European leader to visit Sisi’s Egypt, in 2014. But it is quite likely that the moment he set foot on Egyptian soil, Regeni’s fate was sealed.

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A government that massacres 1,000 citizens in a single day, jails tens of thousands of young people, sodomises children in custody, causes hundreds of people every month to disappear (at least 20 just in the last week, in Alexandria), and routinely prevents foreign researchersfrom entering the country, is not a regime that will hold any life in much regard.

Giulio Regeni [AP]
Giulio Regeni [AP]

In the calculus of repression, the question is clearly: What are the costs versus benefits of killing a young Italian graduate student who is researching the most powerful challenge to the regime’s power, the labour movement?

On the one hand, it sends a dramatic statement to the international research and journalistic community and even more so to Egyptians: you can and will be tortured and even killed if you approach the regime’s weak spots.

Who will send a student, or even a reporter, to look into the ongoing resistance of the labour movement and workers to the government’s policies now? How many Egyptians will be willing to help foreign researchers or journalists, even – especially – their friends, to engage in such activities?

As long as the blowback is mostly rhetorical and short-term at the official level, it seems that whatever elements of the Egyptian government are behind the killing will be able to mark this down, horrifically, as good kill.


As long as the blowback is mostly rhetorical and short-term at the official level, it seems that whatever elements of the Egyptian government are behind the killing will be able to mark this down, horrifically, as good kill.

Given Italy’s multibillion-dollar commitments to Egypt, it’s hard to imagine it being otherwise. Rather, Regeni’s murder will probably be written off by the Italian government and economic elite as a cost of doing business.

Italy is Egypt’s largest European and third largest global trading partner, with its $6B in annual trade about to be augmented significantly by Italian-owned Eni’s role in the development of Egypt’s massive new Mediterranean gas fields.

Fear, suspicion and threats

How else can one read the Italian government’s call for “closer co-operation” into Regeni’s killing when the police official charged with investigating Regeni’s death was himself convicted of torturing a man to death?

Leading Italian journalist Alberto Negri put it best, writing in the business daily Il Sole 25 Ore: “We treated Al Sisi with [kid] gloves… ‘The Egyptian challenge – said Renzi – is also our challenge, Egypt’s stability is our stability.'”

Such attitudes are not unique to Italy. In fact, no government cares enough about Egyptians workers, or any Egyptians for that matter, to do anything to upset its economic and strategic ties with the Sisi regime.

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The British and US governments have enabled Egypt at every step since Morsi’s expulsion, providing billions of dollars in weapons and aid. Indeed, just this past week the Obama administration called for removing all remaining human rights conditions on military aid.

Italian ambassador to Egypt Maurizio Massari [AFP]
Italian ambassador to Egypt Maurizio Massari [AFP]

Giulio Regeni, by all accounts a brilliant student, courageous journalist and beautiful human being, has become another victim of the intersection of hyper capitalism, “terrorism” and “security” discourses, which in turn feed into domestic discourses of fear, suspicion and threats to order to produce the violence that defines internal and international politics today from Cairo to Kano, Sanaa to Sinjar.

The difference is that most of the time it’s “terrorists” who are responsible when “our” citizens are tortured and murdered, while Western-backed governments usually limit their violence to their own people.

Five years to the day after Mubarak’s ejection, it seems that Egypt is back at square one, with the government determined to make sure that as few outsiders as possible can bear witness to the suffering and persecution of its citizens.

It remains to be seen whether the brutal murder or Regeni can spur enough people into action to force the Italian government, and Egypt’s Western partners more broadly, to demand justice not merely for his family, but for the innumerable Egyptians who continue to suffer a similar fate.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.