Regeni’s Brutal Death Reflects the Demise of Egyptian Democracy

The Guardian is wondering who killed Regeni in a new article titled:” Who murdered Giulio Regeni?” The writer of the article Alexander Stille, said that “in a digital age, it’s harder than ever to get away with murder, “despite the Egyptian authorities hope that the outside world, with no independent information, would have little choice but to accept their unsatisfying explanation for Regeni’s death.

When the brutally battered body of 28-year-old Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni was found, the Egyptian officials had told reporters that Regeni had probably been hit by a car, but clear signs of torture on his body had raised an alarm in Rome.

‘” The Egyptian authorities guaranteed “full cooperation”, but this was quickly revealed to be a hollow promise,” said the Guardian.

The Egyptian authorities put obstacles in the way of Italians investigators from day one. They allowed the Italians to question witnesses – but only for a few minutes, after the Egyptian police had finished their own much longer interrogations, and with the Egyptian police still in the room.

In addition, when the Italians requested the video footage from the metro station where Regeni last used his mobile phone, but the Egyptians allowed several days to elapse, by which time the footage from the day of his disappearance had been taped over. They also refused to share the mobile phone records from the area around Regeni’s home, where he disappeared on 25 January, and the site where his body was found nine days later.

The Guardian also pointed in its article to Major General Khaled Shalaby of the Egyptian chief investigators in charge of the Regeni case and a controversial figure who told the press that there were no signs of foul play. Over a decade ago, Shalaby was convicted of kidnapping and torture, but he escaped with a suspended sentence.

Collecting evidence and filling the holes

When the Italian prosecutor Sergio Colaiocco and a couple of police officers travelled to Regeni’s hometown of Fiumicello, in north-eastern Italy-with Regeni’s body, to attend his funeral-It would be a rare opportunity to question many key witnesses in the case, gathered in one place.

More than 3,000 mourners attended the funeral from the US, where he had studied during high school; from Latin America, a region he knew well; from the UK, where he had done both university and graduate studies; from Germany and Austria, where he had worked; and from Egypt where he had lived since November 2015, researching the trade union movement for his Cambridge doctorate.

The Italian police have the chance to question witnesses and to receive Giulio Regeni’s friends and relatives’ phones and laptops.

“As members of the Facebook generation, they were used to living transparently, ceding chunks of their privacy as the price for living in a connected world. If it could shed some light on the circumstances of Giulio’s death, they were prepared to share their personal data,” said the Guardian.

In addition, “Regeni’s parents also gave the police his computer, which they had taken from his Cairo apartment after he disappeared,” As a result, the Italian prosecutors were able to work around the holes in the evidence provided by the Egyptian government, and to reconstruct Regeni’s world together with the mass of emails and text messages collected from his friends.

In the same context, the prosecutors also obtained another vital piece of evidence: Regeni’s battered corpse, which, after an extremely thorough autopsy in Italy, has told them volumes about the final nine days of his life.

While this evidence will almost certainly not be enough to help Italian investigators identify Regeni’s killers by name, “it has allowed them to refute a series of lies from the Egyptian government about Regini’s murder – and keep up pressure on Egypt for hard information about his killing,” said the Guardian.

Italian prosecutors recently made a development when the Egyptian government agreed to hand over mobile phone records from both the area where Regeni was last seen, and the place where his body was found.

However, the most important shift was when the Egyptian prosecutors admitted for the first time that Regeni had been under police surveillance before his disappearance during a visit to Rome in early September. But the Egyptian government continues to deny that it had any involvement in Regeni’s death.

Regeni’s disappearance Isn’t coincidental

The last message that trace Regeni alive was at 7.41pm on 25 January 2016 when he texted his girlfriend “I am going out,” while he was walking from his apartment to the nearby metro, bound for the center of Cairo.

The Guardian wrote that” Regeni disappeared on 25 January is not coincidental. It is, in fact, a crucial clue to understanding his murder.” It isn’t coincidental as it was the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, and the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square that brought the Arab Spring to Egypt and toppled Egypt’s autocratic leaser Hosni Mubarak.

The date has “a totemic significance for the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, for whom it represents a traumatic climb down – a moment in which the military’s apparently unassailable grip on power seemed to slip,” said the Guardian.

As a result, the army had been forced to accept the trial of Mubarak and the election of Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi, posing a serious threat to its position in Egyptian life. Such a thing could never be allowed to occur again, according to the Guardian.

When al-Sisi and the military took control of the government and arrested Morsi in July 2013, Morsi supporters took the streets in demonstrations in two public squares and staged sit-ins, hoping for a repeat of the peaceful revolution in Tahrir Square. But this time al-Sisi crushed Morsi’s supporters with in tanks and soldiers and massacred at least 1000 people in one day.

As a result, one of al-Sisi’s first official acts was to ban any unauthorized assembly of more than 10 people. And each anniversary of the Tahrir Square uprising has brought bloodshed.

In 2014, Sisi’s government killed more than 60 protesters around the country at the time of the anniversary. A year later, 25 people were killed, including a woman poet who tried to lay a wreath of flowers in the square.

In the days before his disappearance, computer records show that Regeni had laid low, mostly staying inside his apartment. Police had reportedly searched 5000 apartments in Cairo in an effort to intimidate anyone who might be planning a demonstration. The raids were mostly concentrated in downtown Cairo, and did not include Regeni’s apartment in the Dokki neighborhood of Giza, a separate city that includes the site of the ancient pyramids.

On that day, the Egyptian security forces are on their maximum alert in fear from demonstrations Regeni decided to attend the birthday party of a friend on the evening of 25 January and when the Downtown Cairo appeared to have returned normal by nightfall and he and another friend agreed to meet at their usual place, not far from Tahrir Square. “And so, Regeni walked into the force field of police activity in central Cairo, at its point of greatest alert,” said the Guardian.

Regeni picked up by police officers and transferred to a security camp 

Despite the Egyptian authorities’ denial, on 21 April, Reuters reported that Regeni had been picked up on the night of his disappearance by Egyptian police in downtown Cairo, near the Nasser metro stop.

The news agency claimed that he was taken to a local police station for half an hour, then transferred to a Homeland Security compound in the area.

Reuters claims were based on six independent but anonymous sources – three in the police and three in the security services.

“After publishing the report, Reuters’ Cairo bureau chief was threatened with criminal prosecution and left the country. Egyptian police recently detained an Egyptian Reuters reporter for unspecified reasons,” reported the Guardian.

In May of this year, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior accidentally leaked an internal memo proposing a ban on all press coverage of the Regeni case.

Regeni’s activities seem harmful to the Egyptian regime

It isn’t obvious whether Regeni’s arrest was planned, or the result of a random sweep, but once they had him in custody, Egyptian authorities would have realized that they already had file on him.

Marie Duboc, a French scholar who now teaches at the University of Tübingen, in Germany said, “There is no question that he would have been monitored. Like Regeni, she has studied Egyptian labor unions. “Even historical research that would seem harmless to any outsider, is still extremely sensitive in Egypt.

Duboc lived under surveillance from 2008 to 2010, when she was in Cairo, working on her own PhD. “I would get strange phone calls from the Ministry of Higher Education, asking about my research.”

In addition, she was turned away at the airport and barred from entering the country when she tried to visit Egypt to do follow-up work. Clearly, her name had been placed on a blacklist. (She has subsequently been allowed to return, she said.)

Labor Unions under al-Sisi

Under al-Sisi military regime, the independent labor unions are a particularly a sensitive topic in Egypt, because unions were seen as a key motivator force on January Revolution 2011 Revolution.

Labour unions were mainly controlled by the government than representing the labors’ interests until 2009 wgen the first independent trade union was formed.

But the movement truly took a major role after Tahrir Square. “A thousand independent labour unions sprouted up after the fall of Mubarak and, within days of the 2011 revolution, the first federation of independent unions was formed,”said the Guardian.

According to the British newspaper many “democracy advocates in and outside Egypt, including Giulio Regeni and his Cambridge supervisor, the Egyptian political scientist Maha Abdelrahman, regarded the independent trade union movement as a positive development, with the potential to strengthen civil society, democratic participation and workers’ rights”

However, all these things seem” threatening to a military regime determined to repress autonomous sources of power.

Regeni attended a public meeting of the independent unions-his field study- on December 11, six weeks from his disappearance.

Accordingly, he wrote an enthusiastic article about it, together with a friend, which they published (in Italian) under a pseudonym.

“But something disconcerting happened at the meeting: although Regeni sat to the side and was not on the roster of speakers, a woman in a headscarf came over and photographed him. Regeni was shaken and told several friends about it. It was the first sign that he might be being watched,” reported the Guardian.

Regeni’s particular area of research was a nascent independent union of street vendors, a large group that was difficult to control and a cause of considerable concern to the government.Street vendors moved rapidly into Tahrir Square during the massive demonstrations of 2011.

Moreover, for his doctorate, Regeni was engaged in what is known as “participatory research” – a method that involves spending substantial amounts of time in the field with one’s subjects. While this is standard practice, a young Arabic-speaking foreigner, hanging out for hours in street markets, and asking about unionisation, future organising plans and attitudes toward the government, is likely to have looked extremely suspicious to most Egyptians – who have been told over and over to be on the lookout for foreign agents.

In addition, during the autumn of 2015, he had learned of a grant of up to £10,000 issued by a British foundation to fund a development project. He was interested in applying because he could use the money to support his own PhD research and help the people he was studying. “He mentioned his idea to a leader of the independent street vendors’ union, Mohamed Abdallah. Abdallah’s level of interest – in the money, rather than the project – worried Regeni. As a result, Regeni dropped the idea.”

But still the news of a young well-funded foreigner, ready to finance an internal Egyptian movement, “may have struck police as exactly the kind of foreign conspiracy they wanted to stamp out.”

In a parallel path,al- Sisi’s regime took secetal moves to tighten its grip over the labor Union. It made the chief of the federation of independent unions the minister of labour, an appointment intended to co-opt the movement and bring it under government control.

Recently, in a further threat to their independence, a new measure was introduced, forcing the independents to re-register or risk decertification.

Despite all the security message taken by al-Sisi regime against labor unions but it seems that Regeni’s meetings and articles were alarming.

One of the proposals was for a “series of regional conferences that lead after a few months to a large national assembly and perhaps a unitary protest (“To Tahrir!” said several of those present.)

Regeni’s article ends with a few sentences that look like challenging words. “In the repressive context of the Sisi government, the fact that there are popular and spontaneous initiatives that break the wall of fear is significant and represent in and of themselves an important push for change.“To challenge the state of emergency, the government’s appeals to stability and social harmony in the name of the ‘war on terrorism’, means today, even indirectly, to challenge the very basis on which this regime bases its existence and its repression of civil society.”

On 7 January, just a month after the union meeting, Mohamed Abdallah denounced Regeni to the authorities. After Regeni’s death, he told the Arabic-language newspaper Aswat Masriya that he became suspicious of Regeni because his questions “were not about street vendors … and had other intentions … I am not an informant but I believe I am protecting my country.

The Egyptian government says that as a result of Abdallah’s tip-off, it placed Regeni under investigation, but decided after a few days that his research was of “no interest to national security”.

Regeni’s slow death

Regeni’s body was discovered during the visit of the Italian minister of economic development, Federica Guidi to Egypt . On February 3, while Guidi was meeting with Sisi and other Egyptian officials, a mini-van driver got a puncture on the road from Cairo to Alexandria. While fixing his flat tyre, he discovered Giulio Regeni’s body.

The Egyptian forensic expert who first examined the corpse initially said that the multiple signs of torture suggested Regeni had suffered a “slow death”.

The deputy head of criminal investigations in Giza, the city where the body was found, told the Associated Press that initial investigations showed Regeni was killed in a road accident

In the following days, as Italy’s  pressure mounted, Egyptian officials began floating various theories in the local press: that Regeni was gay and the victim of a crime of passion, that he was involved in a drug deal gone bad, or that he was a foreign spy.

Upon further investigation, these theories fell apart as digital record from Regeni’s possessions  showed that he had a girlfriend in Ukraine, and there were Skype logs, emails and texts to prove it. His computer, email and bank records showed no trace of contact with any intelligence services. “

Alessandra Ballerini, the lawyer for the Regeni family said,”We had his bank accounts, which showed he had almost no money.

“This is a boy who wore his father’s old bathing suit and used his mother’s old backpack because he didn’t want to be a financial burden to his family.”

Most important was the rigorous second autopsy carried out in Italy, using Cat scans and tissue analysis. The Egyptian pathologist’s report had said that Regeni was killed by a blow to the head.” “More detailed analysis in Italy showed that he had been hit repeatedly on the head, but that these blows were not fatal. ”

Blood had coagulated around the points where he had been hit, and other cuts, bruises and abrasions on his body showed different stages of healing.

This present a strong indication that Regeni had been tortured more than once – and that days had passed between “his initial torture, later sessions, and the moment of his death,” reported the Guardian.

He was covered with cuts and burns, and his hands and feet had been broken. Even his teeth were broken. His torturers appear to have carved letters into his flesh, a well-documented practice of the Egyptian police.

The forensic doctors at the University of Rome used a highly accurate technique for determining time of death, which measures potassium levels in the vitreous fluid of the eyes. They established that Regeni died between 10pm on 1 February and 10pm on 2 February. “This is important because it means that he was alive for at least six or seven days and tortured repeatedly during that time,” said one Italian investigator. The cause of death was a broken neck. Regeni’s mother believes that this was the work of professional torturers.

The strength of the autopsy evidence forced the Egyptian authorities “to abandon the implausible theories of accidental death and begin a new public relations offensive,” said the Guardian.

Al-Sisi appeared by himself in  an interview to the editor-in-chief of the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, which was published on 16 March and dominated by the Regeni case. As the autopsy evidence implicated the Egyptian police, “Sisi seemed to suggest that Regeni’s death was part of an elaborate conspiracy.”

“Why was the body found right when the minister of economic development and the Italian delegation were here to strengthen our cooperation?” he asked.

Al-Sisi also linked Regeni’s death with the crash of the Russian airliner in October 2015. “Russian tourism and Italian tourism [in Egypt] have collapsed to nothing … Fill in the dots of these different episodes and you have a clear picture of an attempt to strike the Egyptian economy and isolate Egypt.”

Just days later, in early March, a witness stepped forward with a new hypothesis. An Egyptian engineer claimed that he had seen Regeni, on the afternoon before his disappearance, having a furious argument with another foreigner near the Italian consulate. The engineer, Mohammed Fawzy, then appeared on a popular Egyptian TV programme to say that he thought that the Italian government knew who killed Regeni, but was hiding the evidence. “Echoing Sisi, Fawzy speculated that whoever killed Regeni was trying to sabotage commercial relations between Egypt and Italy,” said the Guardian.

The engineer’s story collapsed when the Italian prosecutors’ digital archive showed that Regeni had been at home all afternoon on 24 January. He had been on Skype with his girlfriend, chatting as they streamed the same movie and watched it together, 3,500km apart. In addition,”Mobile phone records also showed that the engineer was not in the neighbourhood of the Italian consulate in Cairo at the time of the alleged quarrel,” said the Guardian.

Suddenly on 24 March, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior narrated a new story about the case. The ministry claimed that Regeni was kidnapped and killed by a gang of four men “specialized in impersonating policemen, kidnapping foreigners and stealing their money.”

The Egyptian government displayed a tray of objects that included Regeni’s passport, Italian identity card, a credit card and his ID card from Cambridge University. Not only had the Egyptian police found the culprits, they had already killed them too in exchange of fire as the ministry claimed.

However, the ministry story made little sense as phone records placed the leader of the gang more than 100km away from Cairo at the time of Regeni’s disappearance.

Second,the relatives of the alleged criminal gang have insisted that its members were killed in cold blood at close range, rather than in a shootout.

Moreover, “why would a band of thieves keep Regeni’s identity cards, given that they would provide incriminating evidence that tied them to the crime? Why would they torture a robbery victim for a week without ever asking for ransom money or using his credit card?” according to the Guardian.

But this fabricated story with the presence of Regeni’s passport and identity cards with the Egyptian police, ” have apparently incriminated themselves.”

Even for local media, the series of improbable cover stories was becoming an embarrassment even in Egypt. In a rare public rebuke, Mohammed Abdel-Hadi Allam, the editor-in-chief of al-Ahram, a government-owned newspaper, wrote: “The naive stories about Regeni’s death have hurt Egypt at home and abroad and offered some people grounds to judge what is going on in the country now to be no different from what went on before the 25 January revolution.”

He also compared the Regeni case to that of Khaled Said, a young Egyptian who had been seized by police in an internet cafe in 2010, and beaten to death. Photographs of Said’s body taken by his brother were posted on Facebook and became an important rallying cry for the protesters who helped bring down Hosni Mubarak.

Theories behind Regeni’s murder

“Despite clear indications of involvement by the nation’s security forces, the Egyptian government is left with what might be called the stupidity defence,” said the Guardian.

As the Egyptian ambassador to Rome put it: “We’re not so naive as to kill a young Italian and throw away his body the day of Minister Guidi’s visit to Cairo.”

“There are two theories,” said Karim Abdelrady, an Egyptian human rights lawyer. “One is that there is a feud between the Egyptian secret services, and one branch dumped the body in order to embarrass the other.”

A long, detailed anonymous letter that was sent to the Italian embassy in Bern, Switzerland and published by La Repubblica described the involvement between the different branches of the Egyptian secret services, and reported that Regeni’s body had been wrapped in an Egyptian army blanket, as if to direct suspicion towards the military police.

But Italian investigators say that they have no way to confirm or deny the information in this document.

“The other theory,” explained Abdelrady, “is that the Egyptian police thought they could get away with it by blaming a band of criminals, and that people would not think the Egyptian police would be so stupid as to leave the body where it could be found.”

One foreign scholar who has lived in Cairo for many years,“This case cannot be understood without understanding the context of generalised paranoia in the country.” He added,  “For the last three years, many high-level government officials, including members of the military, have spoken publicly about foreign conspiracies to undermine Egypt. This is bound to seep down to all levels of the police and military.”

After the military coup in 2013, the Sisi regime seemed anxious to stress that the 2011 revolution was not the result of popular dissatisfaction,” but collusion between outside powers and Egyptian subversives,” said the Guardian.

As a result, human rights situation in Egypt – which was never good under Mubarak – has harshly deteriorated.

After the military coup, the number of  political prisoners are estimated by 40,000.

Between late January and November 2015, Egypt’s Al Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence documented 281 extrajudicial killings, 119 murders of prisoners in detention, 440 cases of torture in police stations, and 335 forced disappearances.

After documenting these cases, the Nadeem Center was forced to shut down, allegedly for violating its charter as a medical organisation.


Regeni’s death as a public example

In the past, Egypt had tried to avoid trouble with foreigners, but it now seemed intent on making public examples of them. “Giulio died like an Egyptian,” says Ballerini, the Regeni family’s lawyer.

The climate of xenophobia and police brutality in Egypt has raised questions for Italian prosecutors as to “whether it was appropriate for Cambridge University to allow a young foreign student to go Cairo and undertake field research into such a delicate topic,” said the Guardian.

Regeni’s supervisor, Maha Abdelrahman, is very knowledgeable on this subject: she has been a vocal critic of Egypt’s military governments and has written extensively about the country’s unions and protest movements. In early 2015, she wrote about “the tendency of turning ordinary citizens into police informants and the increasing criminalisation of previously harmless activities.

Relations between the Italian investigators and Cambridge University got off to a bad start when Abdelrahman declined to hand over her emails and text messages after the funeral.

She also kept the police waiting for three hours, turning up for her interview at the police station at 10pm.

Abdelrahman’s reluctance to hand over her personal data is understandable, given her background – “she had grown up in Egypt under a military regime, when a person would never have given anything to the police if they could help it,” said the Guardian.

Abdelrahman has chosen not to speak to the press since Regeni’s death, but told colleagues at Cambridge that she cooperated with the Italian police the day of the funeral.

The Italian prosecutors have been keen to find out whose idea it was that Regeni should write his PhD dissertation on independent unions, and the street vendors’ union especially. When detectives asked her whether she had pushed Regeni to pursue his research into that particular topic, or if she had been aware that he might have felt in danger, Abdelrahman felt that she was being treated like a suspect.

The lead prosecutor, Sergio Colaiocco, travelled to England in June, having sent a request to two Cambridge professors for an interview. The university says it received no notification from the Italian government, but learned of the request informally from Cambridge police. The two professors initially agreed to meet with the prosecutor, but then declined to be interviewed.

This prompted a brief firestorm, with the Italian deputy foreign minister, Mario Giro, taking to Twitter to shame Cambridge for its lack of cooperation.

In the end, the Guardian believes  that “Regeni’s death is a mystery hiding in plain sight: his seemingly inexplicable, brutal torture and killing reflects the demise of Egyptian democracy, the stripping away of already limited liberties and protections, the brutal crackdown on dissent, the increase in torture and forced disappearances, the tendency to blame the country’s problems on outside conspiracies.”

In addition, Giulio Regeni, with his ability to speak five languages, his mobile phone full of foreign and Egyptian contacts,” might look like a spy, and police, in a system with little or no accountability, might make reckless mistakes,” said the Guardian.

“This didn’t happen in a vacuum,” Heba Morayef, an Egyptian human rights advocate, said. “It came after three years of almost constant rising xenophobic propaganda, fed by the security services, encouraging citizens’ arrests of foreigners, and so on … There are so many people in the Egyptian security forces that talk about this foreign conspiracy, that more and more people start to believe it. This is how a deeply paranoid police state operates.”