A memorial service was held on Wednesday at the American University in Cairo (AUC) for Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni, who was found brutally murdered early this month after a nearly 10-day disappearance.
The memorial was organized by AUC’s political science department, where Regeni was working to finalize his thesis on the labor movement in Egypt. His supervisor, political science professor Rabab al-Mahdy, mourned the deceased scholar as “a citizen of humanity.”
Regeni was found February 3 on the side of a road in the Giza suburb of 6th of October City. His body showed signs of torture including cigarette burns, bruises, cuts and multiple stab wounds.
The 28-year-old went missing on January 25, 2016 — the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution — after he was reportedly headed to the downtown Cairo district of Bab al-Louq near Tahrir Square, which was occupied by heavily armed police forces that day. The circumstances of his murder may point to the police as the primary perpetrators, according to some observers.
In response to a contentious statement issued February 4 by AUC’s administration, which described Regeni as having passed away, at the memorial Mahdy stressed that the student was murdered.
“His horrific murder — and it is a murder, not a ‘passing away’ like the AUC administration thought it was — is the price he paid as a citizen of humanity who believed in equality, dignity and justice,” Mahdy said.
Following Regeni’s death and the subsequent discussion of his academic and journalistic activities, pro-government media and political figures started questioning his intentions, asking why an Italian would be interested in Egypt’s labor unions.
For Mahdy, “his work on identifying the challenges facing independent unions in Egypt was not just driven by intellectual curiosity, but more so by a belief in the right of ordinary Egyptians to organize and to be able to pursue their long-lost rights.”
“That’s exactly what sets Giulio apart from many scholars, and even from many of my fellow countrymen and women. He cares,” she continued. “Giulio was not given the chance to finish his scholarly project, but he chose a life and was forced into a death that attests to everything he had hoped to work for.”
Mahdy then highlighted the escalating cases of forced disappearance, intimidation and torture enacted by security forces that Regeni’s murder exposed.
“Giulio’s remembrance is not about reconciliation, because I don’t think that reconciliation is possible,” she concluded.
Following Mahdy’s speech, a number of AUC professors from various departments honored Regeni with poems in Polish and Italian, as well as a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in Arabic.
After the program ended, a strongly worded statement was read in the name of AUC faculty and students castigating university officials for their stance on Regeni’s murder.
“While we acknowledge that the AUC administration did not wish to preempt the results of the investigations into the causes of Giulio’s death, we are outraged by the administration’s failure to publically acknowledge that Giulio was tortured and murdered,” the statement said. “Not only was the university’s first communication factually inaccurate, it was shortsighted and insensitive.”
Many AUC students and faculty were outraged by the university’s cautious language in its February 4 press release. The administration amended the statement on February 7, removing the contentious phrase “passing away” and explaining that the university “has been in close contact with authorities since [Regeni’s] disappearance and continues to monitor the case.”
The student and faculty statement read at the memorial service argued that “Giulio Regeni is a victim of an authoritarian crackdown that has involved mass arbitrary arrests, detentions without charge and reports of torture and forced disappearances in Egypt, all of which have been widely reported by national and international human rights organizations and media.”
Wednesday’s statement is part of a larger campaign by some members of the AUC community to pressure the administration to take a stronger position on the case. Also on Wednesday, a group of students and faculty members gathered at the AUC New Cairo campus to condemn the university’s actions to date, hanging an immense banner reading, “Giulio’s murder is not an isolated incident. The AUC bubble won’t protect you.”
AUC student Alya al-Marakby told Mada Masr that the campaign is urging university officials to make a political statement speaking against the injustice of Regeni’s death. University leaders “need to acknowledge that there is a problem,” she said, “not just deny it.”
Furthermore, AUC needs to take swift measures to ensure maximum protection of its wide community of researchers and scholars, including offering proper security training for those who conduct field work, establishing a security hotline for students and researchers who feel harassed or endangered, opening a dialogue with the community on the possible dangers surrounding academic freedoms in Egypt, and offering legal support to those who face intimidation, Marakby asserted.
Associate anthropology professor Hanan al-Sabea, who is also part of the campaign, told Mada Masr that future steps will include coordination with Cairo University’s March 9 Movement for the Independence of Universities, an advocacy group founded in 2004 to champion academic freedom.
But so far, the campaign has not elicited the desired response from the administration, according to Sabea. “We were told that the situation is complex and sensitive, and we should be calm. Of course it is complex, but [the university’s] stance is further complicating it,” she asserted.
Regeni’s murder is not the first case of authorities harassing and intimidating AUC researchers, according to the professor. Former AUC student and blogger “Philip Rizk was arrested in 2009, another student was harassed in Mahalla. We feel that we are alone in this battle. Where is the university that claims it championed academic freedoms?” she asked.
“How could I ask researchers to come to Egypt and do research?” Sabea continued. “The ramifications of [Giulio’s murder] will be far reaching. We will be locked up in this country.”