Italy has let Egypt hide the truth regarding Giulio Regeni, and it is now repeating past mistakes
In the last days, numerous Italian intellectuals have returned their Honour Legion, the highest French order of merit, protesting its award to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. This symbolic action reflects the dissatisfaction and dismay of many Italian citizens regarding the status quo of international relations with Egypt, tainted by the tragic fate of two figures: Giulio Regeni and Patrick Zaky.
Many Italians have sadly grown accustomed to hearing unsettling reports from Egypt since almost five years ago, when Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge PhD student originally from Trieste disappeared and was later found dead near Cairo. Since the 3rd of February 2016, when his body was found, Italian media and NGOs have closely followed the investigations, which have been characterised by years of red hearings. Indeed, Italian prosecutors have often denounced how Cairo agents and authorities have tried to obstruct their inquiries by leading them towards false suspects, denying call and video logs and even accusing street bandits who at the time of Regeni’s killing were not even in Cairo. Moreover, since November 2019, Egyptian prosecutors have denied every single document which Italian investigators required.
The false leads, the evident signs of torture, and the implicit refusal to cooperate, despite the many declarations of solidarity and collaboration, have brought numerous journalists, analysts and NGOs to point the finger towards the regime itself and, together with the Regeni family, to appeal for a firmer stance by the Italian Government towards its reticent Egyptian counterpart. Numerous appeals for finding the truth about Regeni’s killing were launched and subscribed by countless associations, first and foremost Amnesty International. Yellow and black billboards still hang on many governmental buildings around Italy, asking for the truth. And yet, after an initial withdrawal which pressure the Egyptian authorities to cooperate, the Italian ambassador returned to Cairo in August 2017, marking Italy’s willingness to normalise the relationship between the two countries.
A relationship which is anything but minor: together with the US, China, and Saudi Arabia, Italy is one of Egypt’s major trading partner, both regarding imports and exports. Each year, the trade between Egypt and Italy totals a value of around $4.5 billion and since 2018, in particular, it has grown exponentially around two factors: weapons and gas. This year, multiple helicopters, battleships and fighter jets manufactured in Italy were sold to Egypt, for a total of $1.3 billion. Moreover, the Italian company Eni has significant concessions over the Zohr gas field in the Eastern Mediterranean, one of Egypt’s largest reserves.
These conspicuous interests, which according to many make Egypt the first Italian economic partner in the MENA region, have allowed al-Sisi’s regime to obstruct investigations without Italy intervening more firmly. Just days ago, Egyptian prosecutors refused to handle to their Italian counterparts the addresses of four members of secret service agents, who have been identified as potentially responsible of Regeni’s death, and who may face trial. The fact that, even after such a crucial turn in the investigation, Cairo’s authorities still refuse to cooperate is a signal of the confidence that al-Sisi holds regarding the Italian Government’s lack of reaction.
This permissive attitude, adopted not only by Italy but by many other EU Countries, has allowed Egypt to hide the truth regarding the torture and killing of Regeni, giving the regime the confidence to blatantly disregard human rights conventions one again with the arrest of Patrick Zaky, in early 2020. An Egyptian national, Zaky is a Master student at the University of Bologna and member of the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Last February, he was arrested at the airport of Cairo, where he travelled to visit his family, and was accused of inciting protests and undermining national security through his online activity. To this day, he is being held without having undergone trial.
Since Zaky’s arrest, a large share of Italian public opinion has mobilised in his support, mindful of what happened to Giulio Regeni and determined to protect the young researcher. At Bologna University, countless students and the whole university committee have launched appeals, joined by the Ministry of University and Research, the undersecretary for Education, and crucially, Amnesty International Italia, who has been tirelessly campaigning for Zaky’s release. The outpouring of support has been considerable, probably because the shock related to Regeni’s case and the indignation for the smokescreens used by the Egyptian government are still fresh and impressed in the Italian public opinion. And yet, despite the media coverage, the protests, the appeals, and the general pressure exercised over the diplomatic establishment, a week ago, an Egyptian tribunal has extended Zaky’s detention for other 45 days, crushing his and his family’s hopes.
The cases of Patrick Zaky and Giulio Regeni are, unfortunately, anything but unique in Egypt. Similar injustices have become far too common under al-Sisi presidency: the Committee for Justice association, based in Geneve, has published a report stating that since 2013, when al-Sisi came to power, 1.058 people died while held in Egyptian prisons, of whose 100 only between January and October 2020. Amnesty International has also documented countless instances of arbitrary detention against activists, lawyers and journalists, which often are held prisoner without trial for months, even years. From the perspective of human rights, therefore, Egypt has been a rogue state long before these two cases, and the quietness of the international and diplomatic community was already alarming.
However, the stakes regarding Zaky and Regeni’s cases are even higher: if the Italian Government forced Egypt to hold its secret services accountable of Regeni’s death and managed to obtain Zaky’s liberation, it would at least signal to the al-Sisi regime that not everything is allowed, that there are still some lines that can not be crossed, albeit only related to cases in which other countries are involved. Instead, if Italy and the international community are not willing to hold Egypt accountable at least for these high profile cases, the regime will prove to the world that human rights and international conventions simply don’t apply and that economic and geopolitical interest will always prevail over the goodwill of social actors.
Compliance regarding human rights has been historically difficult to enforce and has often been put aside in favour of political realism and pragmatic approaches. Moreover, the two methods often fuse together, when accusations of human rights violation are used to advance sanctions or geopolitical interests. And yet, in this case, the Italian approach has conveyed nothing but weakness in failing to achieve justice both for one of its own nationals and for an individual tightly connected with the Italian academic world and civil society, repeating the same mistakes over and over. Even in the context of a permanent clash between idealism and realism, the losses in terms of credibility and influence offset the economic gains.
The next months will be crucial for these two cases: the next hearing on Patrick Zaky’s detention should be held in less than one month, and only days ago the Rome Prosecution Office has officially closed the inquiry on Regeni’s case, formally indicting four members of the Egyptian National Security Agency who may, therefore, face trial. Therefore, Italy is still in time to ensure that justice is achieved, by pressing for Zaky’s liberation and ensuring an impartial trial for the indicted agents, but it must act quickly and with a new, unwavering resolve.