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The Dead Remind Us

Italian researcher Giulio Regeni was murdered for his work in support of Egypt’s trade unions. The failure to bring his killers to justice shows the power of the interests he and his comrades sought to challenge.

A large crowd gathered in the English city of Cambridge for a vigil to mark the first anniversary of the discovery of Giulio Regeni's body in Egypt. Alisdare Hickson / Wikimedia

Today marks the third anniversary of the kidnapping of Giulio Regeni, an Italian doctoral student at Cambridge University who was tortured and killed in Cairo by the Egyptian security forces.

Regeni was a polyglot, a well-traveled and cosmopolitan Italian citizen who moved to Cairo to study Egypt’s independent trade unions. Nine days after his disappearance on January 25, 2016 — the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian revolution — his body was found by the roadside on the outskirts of Cairo.

Despite a vast international campaign for justice, after three years of investigations and blind alleys, its call for truth remains unanswered. After an initial worsening of ties, over the last year Italy and Egypt have completely re-normalized their diplomatic relations.

With Italian help, military dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has enjoyed a respectable makeover, including efforts at pinkwashing and greenwashing, prettifying his image by presenting him as for “female empowerment” and “pro-environment”.

Since taking office last June, the Five StarLega government has shown no interest in taking action where its predecessor failed. Its desire to bolster commercial ties with Egyptian capital and a common bid to repress migrants in North Africa has led to an open abandonment of the quest for justice.

Normalized

This became apparent immediately after the new government took office in June 2018, as three Italian ministers went on pilgrimages to Egypt in three months. Ties between the two countries have continued to tighten since. The Italian Commission for Prisoners’ Rights has reported an unusual boom in the number of forced repatriations of “irregular” people to Cairo in recent months. At the same time, considerable economic interests (worth more than three billion dollars) bind Rome to Cairo, in sectors ranging from arms (Italy continues to sell arms to Egypt), to oil, the concrete industry, and transportation.

At the same time, the call for justice for the murdered researcher has constantly been hampered. Investigations pushed by Italian and (mainly) Egyptian prosecutors have led to the handing-over of the videos recorded by surveillance cameras in the Cairo subway, and five agents of the Egyptian security services are officially classified as suspects by Italian authorities. But tens of thousands of people, including Ibrahim Metwally, a lawyer collaborating with Regeni’s family, are imprisoned in Sisi’s jails.

Like other topics (such as the construction of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline), the Regeni affair exemplifies how little the new government of “outsider” parties has changed either the language or practice of Italian politics. In fact, the basic coordinates of institutional discourse on the Regeni affair are the same ones established in the first public interventions by representatives of Matteo Renzi’s Democratic (PD)-led government in 2016.

Indeed, this way of talking about the case follows a familiar pattern, with three main steps. First you declare that the search for truth is essential, Then, you make a generic request for collaboration from Egypt (addressed as an “ally” and “friend”). Finally, you highlight the Italian interests in Cairo (a political ally in the fight against ISIS and migration, as well as an economic power). The emphasis on any one of these three elements varies according to the speaker and the occasion, but the fundamentals remain the same.

One month after Regeni’s death, then-prime minister Matteo Renzi — the first European leader to pay tribute to Sisi in Cairo and indeed to welcome him to Europe — declared: “Precisely because we are friends, we demand you tell us the truth” (summarizing the first two points mentioned above). He then added that “Egyptian leadership is absolutely strategic in opposing ISIS” (fulfilling the final one). In a bid to ease public concerns, the “hard liner” role was initially entrusted to Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni (PD), who recalled the Italian ambassador from Cairo. But after himself becoming premier at the end of 2016, Gentiloni sent a new ambassador to the Egyptian capital.

That decision was made effective on August, 14 2017, the eve of an Italian public holiday and the fourth anniversary of the Rabaa massacre directed by Sisi, which marked the end of the “Arab Springs.” This choice, along with the continuous reassurance that the search for truth was ongoing (combined with a gradual abandonment of any concrete action) finally led the Regeni family to abandon any expectation of institutional help.

The “Outsiders” in Power

The Five Star Movement (M5S), at that time in opposition, immediately took up the campaign for truth, not least given that it provided an opportunity to challenge the government. Yet M5S’s attitude on this subject has always been erratic, combining elements of right-wing and nationalist rhetoric (i.e., appeals to national dignity, references to Regeni’s naivety, and accusations of British secret-service involvement) with a focus on the Italian government’s responsibility, contrasted to M5S’s own veneer of innocence (“Your hands are dirty with blood and oil; ours are clean,” declared M5S MP Stefano Lucini in 2016).

At first the M5S spokesperson on the case was Alessandro Di Battista: in September 2017, he wrote to Prime Minister Gentiloni, suggesting that Giulio Regeni — like Italian oil entrepreneur Enrico Mattei, founder of the National Fuel Trust, ENI — had been killed in order “to harm Italian interests.” But since Di Battista’s departure from direct political involvement after the March 2018 election, this role was taken on by Speaker of the House of Deputies Roberto Fico, who already washed the state’s dirty laundry in his apology for the red herrings in the official narrative on the 1969 fascist bombing at Milan’s Piazza Fontana.

Fico, an M5S man who holds a parliamentary rather than governmental role, welcomed Regeni’s parents into the lower chamber and broke the House’s relations with the Egyptian Parliament. Following this move, M5S MEPs Ignazio Corrao and Fabio Massimo Castaldo, presented a resolution calling for the suspension of diplomatic relations between the European Parliament and its Egyptian counterpart and denouncing the human rights violations under way in Egypt.

Yet if here Fico represents the “left” wing of the party, taking a different line than fellow M5S members directly integrated into the government, this is nothing but the other side of a hypocritical “carrot and stick” tactic. On his first mission abroad as minister for economic development, M5S leader Luigi Di Maio instead reported to the press that Sisi had told him: “Giulio Regeni was one of us,” without realizing that Sisi was here adopting and distorting one of the slogans used his opponents, with their powerful claim, written on prison walls and other buildings, that Giulio was “one of them” — killed “as if he was an Egyptian.”

Campaigners have in turn tried to subvert the Italian government’s language. Amnesty International activists at a rally held by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini sought to expose the inconsistency of his hard-right Lega’s rhetoric with a sign reading “Italians first … what about Giulio?” Police quickly broke up their protest. Along with other right-wing parties, after early attempts to defend “Italian national honor” the Lega has stuck to a more suspicious attitude toward the murdered activist, suggesting he was “not in Egypt to study” but either a British spy or a victim of an international intrigue.

And when the involvement of the Egyptian secret services did become clear, the Lega insisted that the re-normalization of diplomatic relations with Egypt was the most important thing of all. This political interest went along with a rhetorical representation of the Regeni case into a “family issue” (“I can well understand the requests coming from Giulio Regeni’s family, but for us, for Italy, it is essential to have good relations with an important country like Egypt,” Salvini told the conservative newspaper Corriere della Sera). This attempt to make a very public story into a private affair is a clear attempt to depoliticize it, but also signals the overcoming of the previous gap between what was publicly stated and really intended: ministers can now give full vent to their obscene outlook.

Joining together in government in June, the M5S and Lega reconciled their once-distant positions on the case, now combined in a shared lack of concern for his fate. This owes above all to what is, all in all, the Italian authorities’ essentially unchanged geopolitical interest. And positive relations with the Egyptian authoritarian regime are particularly necessary because of the influence Sisi exerts on Libya and especially the areas controlled by General Haftar, whose commander faces an international arrest warrant for war crimes and yet is still considered a key ally of Italian executives.

This line was confirmed by the Mediterranean meeting on Libya held in Palermo, scene of the handshake between Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj (head of the puppet government of Tripoli, of which Italy is the leading sponsor), in the presence of Sisi. Added to that, the Egyptian dictator is himself becoming a key figure in the fight against “illegal immigration” from Africa to Europe.

In this vein, the League-M5S government continues the work of former PD Interior Minister Marco Minniti throughout 2017, well documented by Stefano Catone and Andrea Maestri. These efforts ranged from “desert diplomacy” establishing ties with the Libyan militias to the equipping of the corrupt local Coast Guard to carry out anti-migrant operations. And this is not to mention the “closure of the ports” to Search and Rescue (SAR) boats — a move hypothesized by Minniti, then taken up by Salvini as an anti-immigrant slogan, ultimately proving a (powerful) propaganda tool if nothing more. Across the change of government, the Italian authorities’ approach is effectively the same: to outsource to various Libyan factions the repression of migrants heading towards the Italian shores and, therefore, maintain good relations with their ally in Cairo — without pushing for an admission of responsibility for the murder of Regeni, or indeed the slaughter of thousands of other Egyptian activists and civilians.

Torturers

The last three years have seen some turning points. Up until 2016, the Italian legal system had no specific crime of torture, which created possible difficulties in the (tepid) demands that Italy addressed to Egypt: even if the researcher’s murderers had been brought before an Italian court, in fact, it would have been impossible to convict them of torture. However, in late 2017, before the general election of March 2018 the Italian parliament did pass such a law (Law 110/2017).

Nonetheless, as Stefania Amato and Michele Passione have argued, this law has major failings. It specifies torture not as a crime by a public official but as a generic one; it makes omissive behavior (such as food or water deprivation) difficult to punish; it does not allow for the victims to be compensated. The most serious issue raised by the law, as Roberto Settembre has written, is that the current legal-political framework makes it hard to prosecute the use of torture by those “managing” migration flows on Italian authorities’ behalf in countries such as Libya or Sudan.

Italy, in other words, can tacitly authorize third countries to take recourse to torture, while itself adopting toothless internal norms against it. Moreover, there are now irrefutable reports of serious human rights violations taking place in Libyan detention centers for migrants. In addition to documented complaints from NGOs such as Medici per i diritti e umani and Amnesty International, as well as the United Nations, there has also been a historic ruling by the Milan Assizes Court condemning a Somali citizen for the violence he inflicted on people detained at the Bani Walid camp in Libya.

In this case, as in others, today’s government has even radicalized the line of its predecessors. We see this in Salvini’s recent visit to a soon-to-be-opened Libyan detention camp (“This reception center for migrants — which I wanted to visit — is a cutting-edge center: it can accommodate one thousand people. I want to reject the rhetoric according to which human rights are not respected in Libya”). Moreover security and immigration law (DdL Sicurezza) approved in November further exacerbates the already repressive approach of the measures promoted by Minniti and his PD colleague, the 2014–18 justice minister Andrea Orlando.

This scenario seems to leave little room for a serious fight for truth and justice for Regeni, and indeed the current government pays a lower political price for its failure to act than did its predecessors. Its agenda is based on a harshly securitarian and nationalist rhetoric, hostile to Europeanism and cosmopolitanism in all their manifestations and increasingly inclined to trample even on citizens’ rights in Italy. Such an outlook could not be more foreign to a figure like the murdered young researcher Regeni, and voters aligned to such priorities will hardly be bothered by displays of government inaction.

Fight for Justice

Three years after Regeni’s death, we thus need to ask how to reignite his memory. And do so in a way that not only commemorates his life and mourns for the community in which he was active, but builds on his own radical political charge.

For a time, it seemed that remembering Giulio Regeni could help highlight the similar fate (largely unknown to Western public opinion) of thousands of Egyptians who had been deprived of their freedom or their lives for their opposition to Sisi’s regime. The call for justice for a European killed “as if he was an Egyptian” could have shed light on the context in which his murder took place, shedding light on the dangers and violence to which Egyptian activists are subjected. This could also have derailed absurd and offensive claims designed to present his death as a lone aberration, for instance by casting suspicion that he was a “spy.”

Yet today’s Italian political situation seems to be inverting this dynamic: we are no longer seeing extra exposure of the human rights situation in Egypt because of the horrific death of an Italian citizen, but the obliteration of Regeni’s own case as part and parcel of a general disinterest in the lives (and deaths) of those outside our borders. At a time when racist and xenophobic propaganda is on the rise and fully integrated into the mainstream, Regeni risks becoming someone who “asked for it” because he had the audacity to cross geographical and cultural borders to see with his own eyes what is happening in Egypt.

In other words, the murdered activist can be framed as a leftist intellectual moved by noble ideals but ultimately, as one age-old accusation has it, unable to “save himself.” In this reading, Giulio Regeni is of no interest because he is just one of the thousands we choose not to notice. The Lega and M5S tragically bring to fruition what we once wrote about the implications of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy: i.e., “the quest for truth about Regeni’s killing is traded for the possibility of realizing a work of collective amnesia on a large scale — an amnesia of all the lives cast asunder or lost in the Mediterranean, or at the periphery of the empire.”

Today, nothing can be taken for granted in an Italy in which ethical tolerance daily reaches levels not long ago considered off-limits. The hypocrisy towards Regeni, to which previous governments had accustomed us, is now followed by an indifference that no longer even feels the need to disguise itself as something else. If, however, we choose not to surrender to this horrific scenario, we should realize that even the most basic idea of humanity is deeply political, and deserves defending.

Some bodies, if we listen to them, speak loudly: think of those of the Somali refugees who lifted up their shirts in the Milan Court of Assizes to show the judges the violence they had suffered in Libya, dispensing with any possible verbal misunderstanding. However, other bodies no longer have a voice — and we must ask who silenced them by letting them die. Here lays the body of Giulio Regeni, in which his mother saw “all the world’s evil;” it still cries out for justice, not revenge. “The world’s evil” is everywhere and ongoing. We should take care to confront it, rather than turn away in disgust.