Three incidents that took place earlier this month marked a clear escalation by Italy in the case of Italian PhD researcher Giulio Regeni, who was tortured and killed in Egypt in 2016. Regeni’s family lawyer, Alessandra Ballerini, announced a list of suspects identified by Italian investigators that included several Egyptian officers, the head of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies severed ties with Egypt’s Parliament, and the Egyptian ambassador to Rome was summoned by the Italian foreign minister.
In the aftermath of these developments, speculations abound regarding Cairo’s next move. While some sources seem certain that Italy has cornered Egypt into acting, others feel that, for different reasons — including Egypt’s unwillingness to officially implicate its security apparatuses and Italy’s desire to maintain stable bilateral relations in order to curb issues of terrorism and migration — the current escalation may go nowhere.
Regeni, a PhD candidate who was researching independent trade unions in Egypt, disappeared from a metro station on January 25, 2016 — the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution — while on his way to meet a friend in downtown Cairo. His body was found several days later, bearing marks of severe torture, on the side of a highway on the outskirts of the city.
In September 2016, Egypt’s Public Prosecutor Nabil Sadek publicly admitted that Egypt’s NSA placed Regeni under police surveillance, suspecting him of espionage, but Egypt has repeatedly denied any involvement in his death. Now, nearly three years after Regeni’s body was found, Cairo is facing renewed pressure from Italy, and there may be more on the horizon.
An Egyptian official, who is familiar with Egyptian-Italian relations concerning the Regeni case and who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that Rome informed Cairo last week that continuing to ignore Italy’s demands will “push the Italian government to escalate.”
“We are speaking of further escalation taking place in a matter of weeks, not months, unless the Egyptian government appeases Rome,” the source says. “Cairo will have to formulate a stance in the days following the Christmas and New Year holidays, before the anniversary of Regeni’s disappearance.”
This appeasement may take the form of investigating at least some of the suspects identified by Italian investigators, according to the source.
An Egyptian official previously told Mada Masr that Italy had demanded that Egypt begin trial proceedings into the Regeni case within six months or Italy will consider harsher measures, a warning that was communicated to the Egyptian ambassador to Rome, Hesham Badr, during his meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi on November 30.
An Egyptian Foreign Ministry source tells Mada Masr that there is speculation that Badr might be removed from his post and sent back to Cairo by the beginning of next year, around the third anniversary of Regeni’s murder. However, according to the source, diplomatic efforts by Badr might hold Italian-Egyptian relations together, until the Egyptian authorities decide to offer more concrete concessions to Italy.
The Egyptian official adds that efforts by Cairo to get Pope Francis to facilitate mediation last year did not succeed. According to the source, the pope intervened by supporting voices calling for the return of diplomatic relations following his visit to Cairo in the spring of 2017. At the time, Cairo privately assured the pope that it would take serious action to reveal the identities of those involved in the murder and hold them accountable.
Italy recalled former Ambassador to Egypt Maurizio Massari in April 2016 in response to Egypt’s lack of cooperation in the Regeni case. However, diplomatic relations resumed in September 2017 — despite the fact that Egypt had not taken any real steps toward resolving the case — when Italy reinstated Ambassador Giampaolo Cantini to Cairo, a move that was denounced by Regeni’s family.
Meanwhile, a European diplomat says he doesn’t expect much from the current Italian escalation. All the evidence needed to indict Egyptian officials has been available since last year, he says, and it is too late now to expect that these suspects will be prosecuted.
He adds that Egypt will not turn in any security officials, because this would constitute a recognition of state practices of torture and forced disappearance, which Cairo has long insisted on denying. The source adds that Italy had previously expressed a willingness to compromise with Egypt by omitting names from suspect lists, to no avail.
In the November meeting between Moavero and Badr, the Italian official indicated that Italy had “shown understanding” in removing the names of high-profile officials from an original list of suspects, which was narrowed down from 26 names to 10, according to an Egyptian official who previously spoke to Mada Masr.
The expectation that no official charges will be leveled at any of the identified Egyptian security officials is echoed by another Egyptian official, despite previous confirmations by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that he will bring perpetrators to justice.
The source adds that the problem is that the security apparatus that detained and initially interrogated Regeni is not the same security body that continued interrogating him and in whose custody he died. Those involved in Regeni’s murder belong to more than one security body, he says, and those responsible cannot be referred to investigations, because referring any of them will reveal that they were taking orders from officials that were part of other security bodies, adding that there are names that need “political protection.”
An Egyptian politician tells Mada Masr that the Italian authorities have verified information from US security bodies regarding exactly what happened to Regeni, including who was involved in kidnapping him and who followed up with his interrogation.
The current Italian escalation might be nothing more than a measure to test Egypt’s response, the European source says.
The current Italian government is different from the administration that was in place when Regeni disappeared and was killed, the source explains, and the current government’s priorities in its relations with Egypt have subsequently changed. At the top of Italy’s current priority list are issues related to fighting terrorism, irregular migration and preserving the interests of Eni, the Italian energy company leading massive natural gas findings off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.
Italy is also preoccupied with major issues domestically, including its national budget, which means that the Regeni case is not a government priority, the source adds.
Meanwhile, the source says that Roberto Fico, the president of Italy’s lower house in parliament and a member of the Five Star Movement, is left-leaning and has different politics to the current prime minister, Giuseppe Conte. He adds that while Fico initiated the severance of parliamentary relations with Egypt earlier this month, Conte appeared not to be aware of the development when he was attending the G20 meeting in Argentina.
An Italian journalist covering the issue for a major Italian newspaper tells Mada Masr that Fico is close to Regeni’s family, who were among the first people he met with when he took office earlier this year. As such, the journalist says that Fico’s voice, in regard to the case, has been louder than the government’s.
Ricardo Nuri, Italy’s Amnesty International spokesperson, tells Mada Masr that when Italy’s public prosecutor sent a list of names to Cairo in December 2017, but did not receive a response from Cairo for a year, it had to escalate. “We welcome this move, because it pushed the government to react, especially given that Rome’s friendly approach has been useless so far. We’ve wasted a whole year since the Italian ambassador returned.”
The Italian journalist says that public opinion and media coverage have also contributed to the mounting pressure on the Italian government to act.
“For now, it is a question of political pressure in Italy. There is nothing left to do [in terms of] judicial cooperation, and there was no judicial cooperation to begin with, really. It is one team of investigators working,” Nuri says. “It is up to the Italian government now to either enter another period of tension and crisis [with Egypt], or leave the Italian prosecutor [to deal with this] on his own. If this ends up being the case, the investigation will unfortunately be closed.”