Disappearing in Egypt: From Giulio to Zubaida

How a recent report on forced disappearances in Egypt caused an allegedly missing Egyptian girl to reappear.

Giulio Regeni
Italian student Giulio Regeni was found murdered in the outskirts of Cairo in 2016 [File photo: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi]

Last week, the BBC broadcast an expose on forced disappearances in Egypt. The report claimed, among other things, that a young Egyptian woman, Zubaida Ibrahim, had allegedly forcibly disappeared. Importantly, the report’s section on Ibrahim relied primarily on one, key source, Ibrahim’s mother, Um Zubaida, who also claimed that her daughter had been brutally tortured by police. 

Two days after the BBC report was released, however, Egyptian satellite television network ON E aired an interview with Ibrahim, during which she said she was not forcibly disappeared. Ibrahim told presenter Amr Adeeb that she was married in early 2017 and had given birth to her first child 15 days before the interview. Her alleged husband and son appeared with her on television.

Egyptian authorities and media have had a field day with the ON E interview, seeing it as both vindication and evidence that the BBC is spreading “fake news” about Egypt.

In response to the BBC report’s specific references to the Egyptian security forces, Egyptian President Abdelfattah Al-Sisi said that defaming the Egyptian police and military is tantamount to “high treason”.

Egypt’s public prosecutor, Nabil Sadek, called for legal action to be taken against news organisations that spread “false news, statements and rumours”. 

The public prosecutor’s statement was followed by formal legal action against Um Zubaida, after she doubled down on her original claims in a new television interview. On Thursday, Um Zubaida was arrested for “publishing and broadcasting false news that could harm the country’s national interests”. Meanwhile, reports also surfaced Saturday that human rights lawyer Ezzat Ghoneim, who was aiding Um Zubaida, disappeared. 

The BBC, for its part, released a statement that said it “stands by the integrity of its reporting teams”. 

It is likely that only a relatively small number of people know, with certainty, what exactly has happened with Zubaida Ibrahim. But one can hardly blame Egyptians – many of whom have taken to social media to rail against the government and the ON E interview – for trusting the BBC account and doubting the government’s. 

Media censorship and torture

Egyptians have several reasons to be suspicious. 

First, the Egyptian ON E interview reported – and the Egyptian government hasn’t denied – that Ibrahim and her mother were both arrested and imprisoned for several months in 2014, allegedly for participating in an anti-government protest. Importantly, the 25-minute ON E interview generally elides this important fact.

Second, Egyptian media are largely propagandist. Indeed, Sisi came to power on the heels of a military coup, during which he shut down opposition media. Since then, for the duration of his four-year presidency, Egyptian media has been primarily serving as a tool for the regime.

Moreover, ON E presenter Amr Adeeb is a well-known government sycophant. Sisi has, in the recent past, used Adeeb’s shows as a platform, sometimes calling in live and speaking to the host for long segments. It is perhaps not beyond the realm of possibility, then, that Adeeb would work with the government to stage a farcical interview.


Third, putting Um Zubaida’s single, forced disappearance accusation aside, the Egyptian government has forcibly caused hundreds of people to disappear over the past four years. An Egyptian human rights group documented more than 900 cases of forced disappearance between August 2015 and August 2016.

In the summer of 2016, Amnesty International produced hard evidence of the Egyptian government’s systematic campaign of forced disappearances and torture. The report documented “hundreds” of cases, with approximately “three to four people per day” vanishing at the hands of Egyptian security forces.

Fourth, the Egyptian authorities have consistently denied forced disappearance, torture, and other crimes, only to have been caught being untruthful.

An Italian graduate student, Giulio Regeni, represents an illustrative case in point. Regeni disappeared at the hands of Egyptian police on January 25, 2016. His mutilated body was found nine days later.

Egyptian authorities initially claimed Regeni had been hit by a car, but then changed their story several times. Italian investigators uncovered signs of systematic torture on Regeni’s body; he had been brutally beaten, electrocuted, and burned.

Given all of these realities, it is perhaps not surprising that some Egyptians are doubtful of recent government and media accounts regarding Ibrahim.

Unprecedented repression

This individual allegation of forced disappearance aside, there is little debate that the Sisi regime now represents the most repressive in Egypt’s modern history. None of Sisi’s dictatorial predecessors – Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak – amassed such an inexhaustible record of human rights violations.

Governments over which Sisi has presided have carried out several mass killings of unarmed protesters, including the massacre of more than 900 protesters on a single day in August 2013, and initiated the largest mass death sentences in recent world history.

Furthermore, Sisi is responsible for a campaign of mass arrests, with more than 60,000 people arrested or charged since the 2013 military coup that brought him to power. By comparison, under the most repressive period of Abdel Nasser’s rule in the 1950s, there were 20,000 political prisoners, and under Mubarak – 30,000 in the 1990s.

Mubarak’s security apparatus was notorious for massive political repression, including torture and targeted killings of protesters, but never included anything on the scale witnessed during the Sisi era.

The current Egyptian government has also jailed journalists and systematically eliminated contenders for the presidency, including through arrest, extortion and brute intimidation. Sisi recently said, ominously, that an uprising – the kind that toppled Mubarak in 2011 – will “never happen again in Egypt”.

The Sisi regime has seemingly been willing to do anything and everything to maintain its strong grip on power. Is it so far-fetched, then, to think they may have staged an interview to cover up a crime?

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