On Giulio and the cost of doing business in Egypt

I did not know Giulio Regeni, but I could have. The earnest, affable face staring out of his photographs is reminiscent of any number of the trickle of European researchers and activists who pass through Cairo and want to meet in downtown dive bars to talk about the condition of the workers and the economy. There is the scantest degree of separation between his life in Cairo and mine, a thread of mutual acquaintances.

It goes without saying, I suppose, that his death has shaken me deeply.

To live in this city, in these times, requires the ability to metabolize a steady diet of poison. Like the immune system grows accustomed to drinking tainted water, the mind adapts to and normalizes ever-greater levels of horror — violence, torture, mass killings. It is astonishing what people can get used to.

Sometimes the body rebels, the mind cracks. I have always liked to think of myself as articulate, but have recently developed a habit — a tic — of trailing off in the middle of sentences. An unexpected knock on the door in the evening paralyzes me with fear.

All of us have bad days and good days. We cling to gallows humor and illusions. One of my most desperately cherished illusions is that, although I may stick out more and attract more attention, as a white foreigner from a rich country, I am protected from the very worst of what Egypt has to offer. Prison and deportation — perhaps — but not torture and murder.

They beat him, burned him, the Italian authorities say. They ripped out his nails and broke his neck. It was a slow death.

I would very much like to believe that “they” are criminals, that Giulio’s murder was random; or that, as some of the local media is insinuating, Giulio was involved in something shady or sleazy and somehow brought his death upon himself. It would be a comfort to me, an illusion I could cling to.

But it is too hard to believe.

I can justify the depth of my reaction in a thousand ways, but I am also ashamed of it. I must admit, if I am to be honest, that I have not reacted as strongly or as personally to similar stories when they happen to Egyptians.

I am not alone in this. Reports indicating that hundreds of Egyptians have disappeared, that at least 14 detainees have died in custody in a single police station, are barely footnotes in most of the international press.

Some of this can be explained away by the common tendency to care more about our own countrymen. In 2006, I was living in the Philippines, getting my news from local media. In my memory, the main characters in the war that broke out in the Middle East that summer were not Hezbollah or Israel, but the Filipino migrant workers whose employers took their passports and left them trapped in a war zone. By which I mean to say that perspective, attention, is not always about power and privilege.

I am not Italian, though, nor are most of the journalists covering the story or the audiences following it. Yes, Giulio was foreign, but so are the African migrants shot by the military in the desert, or the Palestinians killed at the border. The ugly truth is that the world cares more because he was white and from a rich country, part of the class of people that is supposed to be insulated from the brutality that underpins the security and prosperity of the West. So we are all shocked.

I have nothing but sympathy for Giulio’s friends and family. I cannot imagine what they are going through. The idea of my own parents having to bear such news makes my hands shake and my stomach heave.

I hope Giulio gets a state funeral, and that public pressure forces something akin to a real investigation into his death. I hope this case helps to shine a bright light into the dungeons in the foundations of the “New Egypt.” I hope it blows the whole festering mess open.

But I am disgusted by the expressions of shock and outrage from Italian officials. These people get newspapers. They have diplomats and intelligence officers in Egypt. They are not naïve. They understand the dirty politics, the abuse, the broken bodies and shattered lives that keep Egypt “open for business.” They know what is going on in this country, and until now they have not appeared to care.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hailed Sisi as “a great leader” who can “save” Egypt, and joined the Italian president in welcoming him in Rome. Italy is one of Egypt’s most important trading partners, with annual bilateral trade at around US$6 billion and rising. Among other things, between 2011 and 2013, Italy sold Egypt more than half a billion euros worth of guns and bullets. Even as Giulio’s battered corpse was lying anonymously somewhere in the city, a trade delegation led by Italian officials was rubbing shoulders with the Cairo elite — a visit that was terminated only when news of Giulio’s death went public.

Italian officials want their gas deals and their anti-terror coalition, and they have always known what the price is. They just expected that somebody else — somebody else’s children — would be the ones to pay for it.

Isabel Esterman 

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