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Egypt's Regeni crisis: The repercussions of European hypocrisy

Almost all the European democracies turned a blind eye to the brutal violence that governs the Egyptian regime’s relationship with its people

In a recent rambling address to the nation, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi stressed that he resorts to neither lying nor deceit (as if the matter necessitated such an explanation). He urged the Egyptians to listen to none but to him. This is the same general who boasted in an interview with the Washington Post on 12 March 2015 of his ability to deceive former president Mohamed Morsi, until he carried out the coup against him. Yet, as the Arabs say “the rope of lying is short”.

Although few people in Europe care whether the Egyptians are aware of the lies and deceit of their president, it is about time now for the world to discover for itself the mendacity of the president and his determination to deceive. The incident that brought this matter to the fore is tragic par excellence.  It is that of the murder of a hardworking student and a researcher who dedicated his academic life to the study of Egypt and its people. He was tortured to death.

Giulio Regeni, the Italian student, was studying for his doctorate at Cambridge University. His thesis was about labour relations in Egypt. This is what prompted him to travel and join the American University in Cairo as a visiting researcher, within the context of what is known in the field of higher study as field research. On 24 January 2015, when Cairo was subject to a huge security mobilisation on the eve of the Egyptian revolution’s anniversary, the young student disappeared in the Dukki neighbourhood, which is located within Jizah inside Greater Cairo, a neighbourhood that is considered to be a traditional middle-class area.

Ten days after his disappearance, the corpse of the young student was found trashed on the roadside of Alexandria desert highway. The body had marks of brutal torture. It was only natural from the start that this incident would not be allowed to pass easily. After all, this was an Italian young man and not an Egyptian. This means he had the backing of a state who feels responsible for the lives of its citizens, whether they happen to be inside the country or outside it. He also had a public opinion behind him that could not simply look away when one of the citizens is murdered in a state known for its repressive conduct, at least not until the truth, the whole truth, is known. It is at that point that the Egyptian state institutions, as well as the officials in charge of the regime, went berserk and started acting in a confused manner that is unusual for experienced agencies of repression and persecution that rely on the legacy of long decades of violating liberties and of oppressing citizens, pursuing them, detaining them and torturing them.

In its first attempt to account for the student's death , the Egyptian Interior Ministry said that Regeni had a horrific traffic accident that killed him and mutilated his body. However, the accident’s story had no legs to stand on, especially in view of the official decision by the Italian authorities to dispatch an investigation team to Cairo and to carry out its own autopsy on the corpse of the murdered young man.

The amazing thing is that the Egyptian foreign minister, who is not supposed to embroil himself in the muddy affairs of the regime’s security agencies, did not hesitate to make his own contribution in the endeavor to mislead the public, when he pointed out that Regeni might have been killed in an orgy of sex and drugs. However, the minister, perhaps upon the word of one of his advisers, soon abandoned his story.

Eventually, the mind of the Egyptian Interior Ministry came up with what its genius officers thought was the decisive flawless story, that Regeni had in fact been taken hostage by a gang specialising in the kidnap of foreigners and that the security agencies managed indeed to get to the gang but were compelled to liquidate all five gang members before ever having the opportunity to question them.

As to how the Egyptian Interior Ministry was certain about the group’s involvement in Regeni’s murder, the answer is that the gang members, for weeks after perpetrating their brutal crime, continued to keep in their possession the victim’s passport and his identity card as well as his other personal belongings. The problem is that the Interior Ministry’s officials and the lawyers of Egypt’s prosecution needed to persuade their Italian counterparts of their “fool proof” gang story.

What is obvious, of course, is that the Italians were not convinced. They were not convinced that some gang, no matter how foolish, would have continued to keep in its possession such incriminating evidence weeks after committing the crime. Furthermore, and assuming that the gang did indeed kidnap the Italian young man, how come that throughout the period of his disappearance the gang said nothing about their demands for releasing their hostage? Worst still, the liquidation of the five Egyptians by the security forces was itself dubious, and their relatives were banned from speaking to the media.

Behind all of this, of course, one encounters a multitude of narratives from the Egyptian official circles, which abandoned one story after the other. More importantly, the Egyptian security authorities admitted that the Italian postgraduate student was known to them. In other words, he was under scrutiny and security observation. And why not when Regeni’s research work necessitated communicating with and interviewing Egyptian trade union and labour leaders, the majority of whom, most probably, are not among those with whom political and security circles are pleased?

Finally, and following an official meeting between the two sides in the Italian capital, Rome, the Italians announced that the evidence the Egyptian delegation presented to them was not sufficient to confirm the gang story and that the delegation did not meet the Italian demands for providing the information relevant to the incident, especially the communication records and tapes of CCTV in the area where the victim was last spotted.

The claim by the Egyptian side that the constitution prohibits providing foreign states with communication records of Egyptian citizens is just nonsensical in this context. The Egyptian regime has been violating the constitution, which was draft by its own supporters in the aftermath of the 3 July 2013 coup, almost on a daily basis. Yet, the matter is well beyond all of this. The issue is whether the Egyptian security authorities were the ones who kidnapped, tortured and murdered the Italian or whether there is convincing evidence to prove the responsibility of other unofficial parties.

The regime’s record makes it suspect number one. During 2015 alone, and one and half years after the coup, Egyptian human rights groups documented the enforced disappearances of about 1,500 citizens. The security authorities have admitted to having detained very few of them while a few others were found murdered, just as happened to Giulio Regeni. The fate of the majority continues to be obscure. However, in Sinai, where no media or human rights groups are given access, the number of those who have disappeared or have been murdered without trial, and those who have perished under torture, is unknown to anyone.

Yet, is the Egyptian coup regime alone responsible for the murder of the Italian student? In fact, the responsibility of Italy and its EU partners is not any less than the responsibility of the Sisi regime. At the purely human level, there is no doubt that the murder of a young postgraduate student is calamitous indeed. This is a student whose hard work enabled him to enrol in one of the world’s most prestigious universities and whose interest in his Mediterranean neighbourhood motivated him to study Arabic and specialise in the Egyptian trade unionist structure.

Yet, at the political level, the Italian government has to realise that the Regeni murder crisis is nothing but the natural outcome of the policy of hastily recognising the 3 July regime in Egypt and the close ties it has forged with the regime of the coup perpetrators in Egypt both politically and economically. Rome was the first European state to receive the leader of the Egyptian coup regime and to award him international legitimacy. The brutality and bloodthirsty nature of the Egyptian coup regime is neither accidental nor surprising. This regime’s early acts were lined with the corpses and blood of Egyptians. Since coming to power, Sisi's regime never ceased to shed the blood of Egyptians and to violate their basic rights, both before and after Regeni.

Yet, almost all the European democracies, including Rome, Berlin, Paris, London and Athens, turned a blind eye to the aborting of the Egyptians’ dream of a free and dignified life and turned a blind eye to the brutal violence that governs the Egyptian regime’s relationship with its people. The EU member states continue to provide the regime with economic support and with investments. EU member states provide the regime’s army and security agencies with weapons and repressive equipment as if nothing ever happened in Egypt.

When you choose allies of the likes of Sisi and Assad, you have no right to complain of being swamped with an influx of millions of migrants or the kidnap and murder of researchers or the export of terrorists.

- Basheer Nafi is a senior research fellow at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Activists take part in a rally in memory of Italian student Giulio Regeni on 6 February, 2016, outside of the Italian embassy in the Egyptian capital Cairo (AFP).