It has been a year and a half since Italian labor researcher Giulio Regeni was brutally murdered in Egypt, but the ongoing investigation and blatant obfuscation of details as to how he died has left his family and friends without closure. Caught between claims that implicate Egypt’s security agencies — mostly from international media and Italian investigators — on the one hand, and the politics of international diplomacy in Libya on the other, Egyptian media has exerted little effort in attempts to expose or investigate the details of Regeni’s disappearance and fatal torture.
However, recent rapprochement, including the decision to reinstate Rome’s envoy to Cairo, after he was recalled when Regeni’s body was found around the fifth anniversary of the January 25 revolution, and an investigative piece published in the New York Times on August 15 have thrust Regeni’s case back into the local media spotlight.
Much of the scant commentary in Egyptian newspapers and on television talk shows on the case has oscillated between speculation that foreign media is conspiring to bring Egypt down — a staple state discourse — and calls to defend national interests, specifically the country’s economic deals with Italy and its mediating role vis-a-vis Libya.
On August 16, as both Egypt and Italy announced the reinstatement of their envoys, the privately owned Youm7 newspaper described the normalization of relations as a “new diplomatic strike for Egypt,” stressing that both countries have turned the page on a tense chapter. Two weeks later, Sisi met the CEO of Italian oil and gas giant Eni to review plans to build a gas field in Egypt’s Mediterranean.
Youm7 was not the only newspaper to project an air of closure in terms of Regeni’s case and Egyptian-Italian relations, both Al-Wafd — a partisan newspaper that wrote, “Egypt and Italy ‘sew up’ Regeni’s file” — and the state-owned Al-Akhbar newspaper published headlines with a similar air of resoluteness.
“Is the return of the Italian ambassador related to Regeni or to ‘other’ more important things?” journalist and Sisi opponent Abdel Aty al-Sandouby posited to television host Tamer Abu Arab in a phone-in from Rome. These “things,” he went on to add, are what pushed Italy to “give up the quest” to find Regeni’s murderers, referring to Italy’s keenness to use Egypt’s leverage in Libya to forge an alliance to help control the influx of migrants through the Mediterranean.
“There’s a general consensus in Europe and the US, and across the bleak backstage of foreign policy and international intelligence services, that one of Egypt’s security agencies is behind Regeni’s death,” continued Sandouby, placing direct blame on Sisi for what he described as “intentional meddling,” before Abu Arab swiftly cut him off.
At the end of January 2017, a recording between Regeni and a member of the Egyptian street vendors union surfaced, confirming that the Italian student was placed under surveillance and that it is likely he was dealt with as a spy. Although the evidence marked a key development in the case, it elicited little from Egyptian newspaper commentators.
Cairo has been blamed for its unwillingness to collaborate with Italy on the case. In June 2017, Egypt rejected a request from Italian prosecutors to attend the interrogation of seven police officers who reportedly investigated Regeni before his death.
Political commentator Mohamed Saad Abdel Hafiz wrote an opinion piece for Al-Badeel titled, “Libya necessitates what Regeni’s case prohibited.” Echoing Sandouby, Abdel Hafiz, a vocal commentator, who generally doesn’t shy away from criticizing the current Egyptian regime, claimed Regeni’s case “was buried in a drawer” in order to cement cooperation between Cairo and Rome over Libya, where a UN-sanctioned government, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, is being pushed to the forefront in the interests of “regional stability.”
Although Sisi has openly backed Sarraj’s rival Haftar, Egypt is in a pivotal position, as its western border with Libya is considered a gateway for those headed to Italy’s south. In a firm effort to curb migrant influxes, which is intrinsically linked to the security vs. immigration debate that spans the European Union, Italy needs Egypt’s support, and as such appears willing to forego individual justice in favor of “the logic of politicians… which has no room for morals or emotions,” Abdel Hafiz explains. “Applying justice, or pretending to execute it and holding state officials responsible reinforces the state’s legitimacy and its cornerstones. The opposite is depressing, and leads people to reject all values. Death becomes an escape. Those who live in countries where freedoms and rights are upheld join the Islamic State after having experiences that lead them to disbelieve what their countries falsely propagate.”
But this kind of reading of Regeni’s case is rare in Egyptian media. For the most part, state-backed and even privately owned media outlets have adopted a defensive stance, in which their main concern is to uphold an air of confidence that diplomatic business is resuming as usual. This has included denouncing anyone who criticizes the manner in which Egyptian prosecutors have handled the case, or who links the state to Regeni’s torture and murder. This sense of national obligation that places Egypt’s “security” ahead of a muddied murder case has bred wary spectators and rendered notions of accountability void. And this is not an isolated case, as discussion on forced disappearances and the widespread use of violence by the Egyptian state has been largely met with impunity and has found no place in the media’s agenda.
Staunch state defender Ahmed Moussa hit back at US media after Declan Walsh’s New York Times Magazine article quoted an official in Obama’s administration saying “there was no doubt” that officials in Egypt were responsible for Regeni’s death. During his August 16 show “Ala Mas’ouleyety” (My Responsibility) on TV channel Sada al-Balad, Moussa promised viewers he would reveal “the truth behind American media,” which he said “is funded by Qatar in order to meddle with other countries’ foreign relations,” and hailed the article a “Muslim Brotherhood-backed lie of a report.”
“Suddenly, an untruthful newspaper publishes information [on behalf of] an untruthful, failed administration… Certainly the journalist received a bribe,” he asserted, claiming the NYT has been “suspicious since January 2011.”
Moussa’s berating of the NYT for “opposing the state and the Egyptian people,” reinforces a nationalistic discourse that people and their governments have similar interests. He suggests the article was deliberately written to threaten diplomatic ties between Rome and Cairo, after both governments promised to reinstate their envoys.
The Italian government reportedly denied that the US provided investigators with substantial evidence regarding the involvement of Egyptian security officials in the murder of Regeni, as the NYT piece claims.“The issue is drawing to a close,” Moussa claimed, blaming “some Egyptian media outlets, who know who they are,” for instigating a rift between Cairo and Rome.
In another attack on coverage in Western media, Osama Kamel reprimanded the BBC for not attempting to verify “old” news published by “a Brotherhood-affiliated website that is blocked [in Egypt],” in reference to Mada Masr, which ran an article referencing a piece published in the Italian La Stampa newspaper, with excerpts from the NYT investigation a week after it was originally published. On “Masaa’ DMC” (DMC’s Evening), broadcast on the newly-launched DMC channel, funded by Egypt’s Armed Forces, Kamel said the piece offered “nothing new,” and accused the British network of lashing out at Egypt with “every chance it gets. It is really saddening to see how hearsay permeates professional [journalism],” he said, stressing that only media outlets that address Egyptians in Arabic “deserve to be discussed.”
According to Youssef Ayoub, a columnist for Youm7, Egypt handled the crisis around Regeni’s death in “a highly professional manner.” He described Italy’s decision to recall its ambassador at the time as “bizarre,” claiming the country had “fallen prey to Egypt’s enemies.” Similarly, a defensive Abdel Mohsen Salama, head of the Journalists Syndicate, wrote a front-page opinion piece in the state-owned Egyptian daily Al-Ahram earlier in August, in which he accused Italy of “unnecessarily escalating [tension]” between Cairo and Rome. Salama recounted how he had assured a group of Italian journalists he had met in Rome that Egypt “would never get involved” in someone’s murder, “even if they committed a crime,” because, “like any other country, [Egypt] could have put him [Regeni] on trial or expelled him,” skirting the gravity of Regeni’s fate.
After his tortured body was found dumped on the side of a road outside Cairo, global pressure to investigate Regeni’s murder was, for a short while, given precedence by both Cairo and Rome, even if only nominally. In March 2016, Sisi told La Republicca that Egypt would “spare no efforts and continue to work with Italian authorities to arrest the perpetrators, so that they can be punished according to the law.” He was addressing Regeni’s parents. His promises have not materialized.
The brutal murder of a foreign academic, working on the status of workers in a country that is not his own, amid global policies charted in response to terrorism and migration — the political bogeymen for some years to come — shows us the game of diplomacy will almost always take precedence over the rights of the individual.
Regeni’s family plan to fly to Cairo next month in search of answers, but, as Egyptian commentators have shown, despite international pressure surrounding the case, there is a strong desire by Egyptian officials and media pundits to continue diplomatic business as usual and hope that, with time, people forget about Giulio Regeni.