There has been unprecedented mobilization in Italy in the 19 months since the forced disappearance of Italian academic Giulio Regeni in Egypt and the finding of his body, made almost unrecognizable by torture.
Much of Italian civil society firmly backed the Regeni family, which generously and courageously took on the burden of giving voice to their own pain and anger, as well as the anger of their children’s friends and colleagues, and those who, due to Giulio’s premature, violent and senseless death were not able to meet him, but shared his vision of the world through a common intellectual background and humanist thought.
The Italian and Egyptian governments were forced to allow Italian prosecutors to investigate Giulio’s death through pressure from professional associations, schools and universities, as well as the art, cultural and sports scenes in Italy, and many families whose children work or study overseas. Support flowed from large Italian cities to small towns in immediate and spontaneous ways, dismantling attempts to derail investigations and defame the murdered Italian scholar one by one. Even elements of the press, who for far too long have been partial to conspiracy theories in their search for a scoop, had to give in to overwhelming factual evidence.
Giulio’s research was “normal research, using normal methods and normal analysis,” wrote Andrea Teti, one of the authors of this statement and an open letter signed by thousands of global academics and published by the Guardian on February 6, 2016. What was not normal was his assassination. Italian civil society understood this from the outset.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Italian civil society received with great dismay an announcement by the Italian government on the eve of Ferragosto (an Italian national holiday on August 15) that an Italian ambassador would return to Cairo, formalizing the de facto normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
As experts in international politics and highly experienced field researchers in Egypt, we express our deep intellectual, moral and political doubts over the explanations provided by the Italian government for the ambassador’s return to Cairo. We do not believe that the return of the Italian ambassador — even an authoritative figure like Cantini — will motivate the Egyptian government to shed more light on Giulio Regeni’s tragic case. The decision to return our diplomatic representative with no real cooperation from Egyptian authorities in the search for truth not only means almost certainly abandoning the last hope of justice for Giulio, it also betrays a deep misunderstanding of the Egyptian regime’s ferocious practices, and undermines any supposed attempts to achieve stability and security objectives for our country.
The government’s decision is highly questionable in both form and substance. In substance, because the reason given by Minister Alfano for the ambassador’s return — that it would provide an opportunity to follow Giulio’s case more closely — lacks credibility at the very least. The presence of former Ambassador Massari in Cairo, despite his credibility, dedication and experience in the field, did not help find Giulio or shed light on his case. The decision is also highly questionable in the form it took, both because it was released during the Ferragosto national holiday, obviously in the hope that the public would be distracted, and because it coincides with the fourth anniversary of the massacre of Rabea al-Adaweya in Egypt, when hundreds of opponents of former President Mohamed Morsi’s removal by the Armed Forces’ 2013 coup were massacred in the heart of Cairo. This massacre — the most violent in Egypt’s modern history — killed both Muslim Brotherhood members and members of Egypt’s democratic and secular civil society.
Moreover, the normalization of bilateral diplomatic relations in this manner is almost guaranteed to weaken Italy’s position in a number of ways. Firstly, in terms of Italy’s reputation, the ambassador’s return sends a clear message to the Egyptian people and to Egyptian civil society that Italy is not committed to pursuing the serious defense of its citizens and their human rights, nor that of Egyptians. This will inevitably damage the reputation of both Italy and the European Union, which are committed to defending human rights and democratic values. Civil society is closely following Giulio’s case in Egypt, well aware that it tests the principles, consistency and credibility of Italian foreign policy.
Secondly, it weakens the security of Italian citizens and researchers in Egypt, as well as of Egyptian civil society. If, as it seems, the government’s decision signals Italy’s surrender in terms of attempts to shed light on Giulio Regeni’s case, this places Italian researchers, the Italian community in Egypt and Egyptian civil society in danger. Egyptian activists, it ought to be noted, have strenuously pushed for justice for Giulio and continue to do so. When Giulio’s body was found, there was already a law in Egypt forbidding protests, yet dozens of young people gathered in front of the Italian embassy to hold a vigil in his memory. In doing so, they risked arrest and abuse at the hands of security forces. “He died like an Egyptian,” they declared. Additionally, the mother of Khaled Saeed — who was tortured and killed by security forces in 2010, and who became an icon of Egypt’s 2011 Revolution — spoke of Giulio as if he were her own son.
On January 25 this year, the anniversary of Giulio’s disappearance, but also of the 2011 Revolution, many people posted on social media in memory of Giulio, and Mada Masr posted a number of articles on his life and death. Lina Attalah, Mada Masr’s editor-in-chief and alumna of the United World College of Duino, just like Giulio, spoke of him at a conference in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies on Feburary 3 this year — the anniversary of the date his body was found. “The atrocity of Giulio’s death is a cry for all of us. Many of us have recognized a certain affinity in the life and research work of Giulio. As journalists we have a duty to shed light on what happened to him, but also to shed light on the wider context and conditions that led to his death.” We find it unacceptable that all these people, who share a vision of the world with us and with Giulio, are endangered by the indifference of the Italian government and the European Union.
Thirdly, the raison d’état: Supporters of the government’s decision to return the ambassador claim that, although morally unpleasant, the story of a single person cannot be given priority over national interests. But it is important to point out that national interests are not served by this decision, rather they are further damaged. As the 2010-11 Arab revolutions have shown, security without social and political justice is inevitably precarious and unstable, and is likely to create even greater dangers. Even the conviction that the ambassador’s return could consolidate business relations with Egypt and Libya seems to be dictated more by optimism than reality. This diplomatic normalization is actually counterproductive in its attempts to please the Egyptian regime on the basis of an erroneous assessment of our national interests.
Fourthly, does the Italian government even want to get the truth about Giulio Regeni? There have been doubts about this from the outset. Aside from withdrawing the trade delegation that was in Cairo when Giulio’s battered body was found, the Italian government only acted after a successful campaign by Giulio’s family and civil society mobilized Italian public opinion. The Italian state has essentially only taken two steps in support of Giulio’s cause: The Italian Parliament’s decision to temporarily suspend the supply of F-16 components to Egypt, and the withdrawal of the Italian ambassador, which until the recent announcement remained the only pressure exerted on the Egyptian government by Italy’s executive.
Our country is Egypt’s largest European trading partner, yet economic sanctions have not even been considered. ENI is the largest producer of hydrocarbons in Libya, and is negotiating access to Egypt’s newly discovered Zohr gas field, yet not even this position of leverage was used. Finally, no serious attempts have been made to push the issue at a European level. Supporters of the government’s decision maintain that not having an ambassador in Egypt was like having a “gun with no bullets,” but it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the government never loaded this gun in the first place.
The Italian government’s decision to return its ambassador is a fait accompli, and it claims this action is part of a sincere strategy to obtain the truth. We hope that this is indeed the case. But, like all forces that have supported the search for truth and justice for Giulio and his family, we reserve the right to closely monitor the government’s behavior in the coming months. We demand, for example, that the ambassador obtains genuine cooperation from Egyptian institutions in this regard. We expect concrete steps to be taken in the investigation, such as supplying video recordings from metro stations reportedly used by Giulio on January 25, the names of security agents involved in Giulio’s prior surveillance, and direct and rapid access to all witnesses Rome wishes to hear from.
Stability and security cannot ignore truth and justice. Shedding light on Giulio’s case is not just an act that Italy owes his family, it could also be an act of international accountability that may help restore justice and the rule of law in Egypt. After all, Ambassador Cantini, while being appointed by the government, has the task of representing the interests of a sovereign people.
We regret that all indications so far suggest that this case has gone in the opposite direction in terms of justice, causing us to seriously doubt the government’s intentions. It would be comforting to be proven wrong.
In closing, we recall our colleague’s words. In 2006, when he was just 19 years old, Giulio released an interview in which, in response to the question, “What is Freedom?” he replied, “The opportunity to express yourself at an intellectual level within a social system capable of supporting you in your choices.” This goal, which was then also one of the goals of the Arab revolts, should be the priority for our countries: Freedom and social justice. These are not just ideals, they are also political goals in Italy’s national interest. This is why we expect the request for justice and truth for Giulio Regeni and solidarity with his family to be translated into concrete action by our government.
It may sometimes be the case that individual interest conflicts with national interests. However, this is not one of those instances.
Lucia Sorbera, Andrea Teti, Gennaro Gervasio, Enrico De Angelis
Rome, Berlin, Sydney, Aberdeen
Note: This is an edited version of a statement translated by the authors and published originally in Italian on Minima&Moralia on August 20.