When the battered body of a Cambridge PhD student was found outside Cairo, Egyptian police claimed he had been hit by a car. Then they said he was the victim of a robbery. Then they blamed a conspiracy against Egypt. But in a digital age, it’s harder than ever to get away with murder
hen six senior Italian detectives arrived in Cairo in early February, following the discovery of the brutally battered body of 28-year-old Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni, they faced long odds of solving the mystery of his disappearance and death. 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. The Italians were allowed 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. 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.
One of the Egyptian chief investigators in charge of the Regeni case, Major General Khaled Shalaby, who told the press that there were no signs of foul play, is a controversial figure. Convicted of kidnapping and torture over a decade ago, he escaped with a suspended sentence.
The Egyptians may well have hoped that the outside world, with no independent information, would have little choice but to accept their unsatisfying explanation for Regeni’s death. But in the digital age, getting away with murder has become more difficult.
About 10 days after the recovery of Regeni’s body, Italian prosecutor Sergio Colaiocco and a couple of police officers travelled to Regeni’s hometown of Fiumicello, in north-eastern Italy, to attend his funeral. It would be a rare opportunity to question many key witnesses in the case, gathered in one place.
The family had asked guests not to bring cameras, or to carry signs of protest, preferring a simple, sober ceremony. But more than 3,000 mourners attended the service, most of them spilling out of a school gymnasium into the street. The funeral turned the town of less than 5,000 people into a kind of miniature United Nations – a tribute to Regeni’s short but global life.
There were friends 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. “We put people up in the houses of friends according to which languages they had in common,” said Paola Regeni, Giulio’s mother, who works as a teacher.
Not only did the police have the chance to question witnesses, they received an unexpected bonus. In a gesture of astonishing openness, Giulio Regeni’s grieving friends and relatives handed over their phones and laptops to the Italian police. 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.
Regeni’s parents also gave the police his computer, which they had taken from his Cairo apartment after he disappeared. This, together with the mass of emails and text messages collected from his friends, has allowed Italian prosecutors to work around the holes in the evidence provided by the Egyptian government, and to reconstruct Regeni’s world.
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, from the time of his disappearance to the time his body was dumped in a concrete channel beside the road from Cairo to Alexandria.
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Giulio Regeni. Photograph: Facebook
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.
Italian prosecutors recently made an important breakthrough: 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. Perhaps even more important, during a visit to Rome in early September, Egyptian prosecutors admitted for the first time that Regeni had been under police surveillance before his disappearance.
The Egyptian government continues to deny that it had any involvement in Regeni’s death. Over the past eight months, Italian investigators have peeled away layers of false leads, attempted cover-ups, and phony evidence, to build a clearer picture of what happened to Giulio Regeni than at first seemed possible.
“I am going out,” Regeni texted his girlfriend at 7.41pm on 25 January 2016. He was walking from his apartment to the nearby metro, bound for the centre of Cairo. This message is the last trace of him alive.
That Regeni disappeared on 25 January is not coincidental. It is, in fact, a crucial clue to understanding his murder
That Regeni should have disappeared on 25 January is not coincidental. It is, in fact, a crucial clue to understanding his disappearance and murder. 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 led to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. The date has a totemic significance for the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, for whom it represents a traumatic climbdown – a moment in which the military’s apparently unassailable grip on power seemed to slip. 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.
When Sisi and the military took control of the government and arrested Morsi in July 2013, Morsi supporters occupied two public squares and staged sit-ins, hoping for a repeat of the peaceful revolution in Tahrir Square. But this time Sisi sent in tanks and soldiers and massacred at least 1,000 people.
Although Sisi came to power himself in the wake of mass demonstrations against Morsi, he seems to live in terror of the crowd. One of his first official acts was to ban any unauthorised 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. He probably knew that the Egyptian authorities were working themselves up to a fever pitch in anticipation of the anniversary. Police had reportedly searched 5,000 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 neighbourhood of Giza, a separate city that includes the site of the ancient pyramids.
Although Regeni’s mother had asked him to remain at home, where it was safe, he decided to attend the birthday party of a friend on the evening of 25 January. Downtown Cairo appeared to have returned to 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.
Tahrir Square is almost deserted and heavily policed on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the 25 January uprising.
Tahrir Square is almost deserted and heavily policed on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the 25 January uprising. Photograph: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA
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. The Egyptian government categorically denied the story, insisting that Regeni had never been in police custody. Reuters has stuck by its story, citing 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.
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.
It is unclear whether Regeni’s arrest was planned, or the result of a random sweep, but once they had him in custody, Egyptian authorities would have been quick to realise that they already had a file on him. “There is no question that he would have been monitored,” said Marie Duboc, a French scholar who now teaches at the University of Tübingen, in Germany. Like Regeni, she has studied Egyptian labour 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,” she told me. Later, when she visited Egypt to do follow-up work, she was turned away at the airport and barred from entering the country. Clearly, her name had been placed on a blacklist. (She has subsequently been allowed to return, she said.)
Independent labour unions are a particularly sensitive topic in Egypt under the Sisi government, because unions were seen as a key galvanising force in the 2011 revolution. Traditionally, labour unions were government-run – more a means of controlling workers than representing their interests. The first independent trade union was formed in 2009, but the movement truly took flight 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. 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 – all things that seem threatening to a military regime determined to repress autonomous sources of power.
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On 11 December, six weeks before he disappeared, Regeni attended a public meeting of the independent unions. He was impressed by their combative energy and 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.
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. Egypt has an estimated five million street vendors, who sell everything from snacks and drinks to cheap clothes and kitchen utensils. In a country of 80 to 90 million people, as many as a quarter of Egyptian families depend to some degree on the income of a street vendor.
The Sisi government regards these workers with clear suspicion. Street vendors moved rapidly into Tahrir Square during the massive demonstrations of 2011. Most were simply looking to make a little money, selling food and drink to protesters, but their very presence was viewed by the authorities as aiding and abetting the revolution. Since then, the government has sought unsuccessfully to remove street vendors from the centre of Cairo, using fines, prison sentences and violence.
“After repeated failures to clear Cairo’s city centre of street vendors … the Cairo governorate issued a shrewd decree,” wrote Abdelrahman, in an article she published last year. The decree required store owners to report any street vendors working near their shops, or risk losing their own trading licenses. This served a dual purpose of forcing shopkeepers to keep tabs on street vendors for the government and pushing the vendors into the hands of the police.
In order to remain on the street and avoid police harassment, street vendors were themselves expected to let police know of anything or anyone unusual or suspicious. “One of the things that has happened in Egypt in the past few years, which we didn’t fully recognise, is that the street pedlars are frequently used as police informants,” said one Cambridge scholar, who preferred not to be named. Scattered around the city, present on nearly every block and square, the street vendors form a natural surveillance network.
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.
Regeni’s good intentions may also have blinded him to how his actions could have been interpreted. 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. Still, 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.
Those most familiar with Regeni’s work in Egypt dismiss the idea that he could have discovered anything valuable or threatening to the Egyptian government. “Giulio had been out doing field work, talking to street pedlars, maybe six or seven times,” says one of his close friends in Cairo. “He would have known only a fraction of what any of the Egyptian government’s informants would have been able to tell them.” Even the independent union meeting that he attended and wrote about was a well-publicised event, authorised and monitored by the authorities.
A street vendor near Tahrir Square, in 2013. In recent years, the Egyptian police have recruited some of them as informants.
A street vendor near Tahrir Square, in 2013. In recent years, the Egyptian police have recruited some of them as informants. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images
While the independent unions were certainly regarded by the Sisi regime with extreme suspicion, the government had already gone a long way to rendering them toothless. One of Sisi’s first moves was to make the chief of the federation of independent unions his minister of labour, an appointment intended to co-opt the movement and bring it under government control. Just this summer, in a further threat to their independence, a new measure was introduced, forcing the independents to re-register or risk decertification.
And yet, to a government on constant alert to security threats, there may have been much in the meeting that Regeni attended – and in the article he wrote about it – that the government would have found 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 fighting 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”.
During the nine days after his disappearance, Regeni’s case became an international cause celebre, inspiring the Twitter hashtag #whereisgiulio? It was also a source of serious concern at the Italian Embassy in Cairo, which was preparing for the visit of a major business delegation, led by the Italian minister of economic development, Federica Guidi. On 3 February, 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”. This claim, however, was quickly retracted. 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.
Meanwhile, the Regeni case had become a huge story in Italy. In the following days, as 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. The digital record in the possession of Italian investigators showed that Regeni 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. “We had his bank accounts, which showed he had almost no money,” said Alessandra Ballerini, the lawyer for the Regeni family. “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 indicated 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. 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.
Giulio Regeni’s mother, Paola, believes he was murdered by professional torturers.
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Giulio Regeni’s mother, Paola, believes he was murdered by professional torturers. Photograph: Remo Casilli/Reuters
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. Sisi suddenly granted 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. Sisi also mentioned the shooting down of a Russian tourist 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.
Relatives of the alleged criminal gang have insisted that its members were killed in cold blood at close range
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. 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.
And then, suddenly, on 24 March, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior announced a definitive resolution to the case. The ministry announced on its Facebook page that the perpetrators were a gang of four men “specialised in impersonating policemen, kidnapping foreigners and stealing their money”.
As proof, the 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. “In an exchange of fire between police forces and the men,” the ministry explained, “all the gang members were killed.”
However, phone records placed the leader of the gang more than 100km away from Cairo at the time of Regeni’s disappearance. Relatives of the alleged criminal gang have insisted that its members were killed in cold blood at close range, rather than in a shootout. The government’s scenario also made little sense: 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? Egyptian officials have now accepted that it is unlikely the dead men had anything to do with Regeni’s death. In fact, by producing Regeni’s passport and identity cards, the Egyptian police have apparently incriminated themselves.
The string 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 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.
Despite clear indications of involvement by the nation’s security forces, the Egyptian government is left with what might be called the stupidity defence. 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 complicated machinations within 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.”
“This case cannot be understood without understanding the context of generalised paranoia in the country,” said one foreign scholar who has lived in Cairo for many years. “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.”
The Egyptian government put Giulio Regeni’s possessions on display in an attempt to prove they had found his killers.
The Egyptian government put Giulio Regeni’s possessions on display in an attempt to prove they had found his killers. Photograph: Uncredited/AP
Almost immediately after taking over during the summer of 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.
Since then, the human rights situation in Egypt – which was never good under Mubarak – has continued to deteriorate. There are now an estimated 40,000 political prisoners. 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.
While in the past, Egypt had tried to avoid trouble with foreigners, 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. 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. 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. An Italian professor who teaches at Oxford, Federico Varese, also criticised Cambridge in an interview with La Repubblica: “The university bears some measure of moral responsibility for not protecting [Regeni] and not grasping that the kind of ‘participatory research’ he was doing increased the risk. It seems that their priority is only to protect Cambridge from possible legal responsibility and a request for damages.”
In June, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor and a number of academics signed a letter stating that the university had not received any request for help from the Italian authorities, and that Regeni had no particular reason to be afraid for his safety, since “no foreign student, researcher or academic” had ever been murdered in Egypt. The university subsequently hired an Italian attorney to facilitate relations with the Italian government and has received, and fully complied with, a request for various documents in the Regeni case.
“I think this polemic with Cambridge has been overblown,” said one close friend of Regeni’s in Egypt. He pointed out that Abdelrahman had continued to do the same kind of field research that Regeni was pursuing. “She was not a professor who remained in the library and sent out her students to do field work. The truth about Giulio’s murder is in Egypt, not Cambridge, in the increasing paranoia of the regime.”
In December, 2015, he said, Egyptian police detained a young French scholar who was conducting research on a workers’ movement, keeping her in jail overnight. “These kinds of things had been happening more often – but they go unreported because the scholars don’t say anything, so that they can return to Egypt in the future.”
The Egyptian government’s softer and more cooperative approach in the last few months suggests, however, that it now accepts an urgent need for reputation management. The government and the Regeni family have agreed, in principle, to meet, which the family hopes will push the investigation another few steps closer to the truth.
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 this closed world, 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.
The Egyptian prosecutors seemed unable to understand why their Italian colleagues did not accept the evidence they were given. “The Egyptian authorities seemed shocked that our police kept asking questions after they came up with the ‘gang’ of killers and the tray with Regeni’s documents,” said one Italian investigator. “Their attitude seemed to be: ‘hey, we found the criminals, we have even killed them. This should put an end to it.’” Surely, they thought, concerns of state – the close relations between two nations, billions of dollars of commercial ties – should count more than the life of one person, who had been killed by mistake. They seemed to find it impossible to understand that the Italian government would have to account to public opinion and could not, even if it had wanted to, accept a flimsy, implausible account of Regeni’s death.
“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.”