Relations between Italy and Egypt may have possibly reached an all-time low following the death of Italian student Giulio Regeni. Regeni had initially disappeared on January 25, the anniversary of the Tahrir Square protests, and his body was found a few days later on February 3 on the side of a highway outside Cairo.
His murder now threatens to undermine Egypt’s relationship with one of its most important trading partners in Europe, and may offer evidence that the government’s security service are becoming increasingly brazen in their attempts to suppress dissent.
Who Murdered Giulio Regeni?
Regeni was a 28-year-old PhD student at the University of Cambridge who was researching labor unions in Egypt. Initially, Egyptian police said Regeni’s death was caused by a road accident. However, that story was quickly discredited when both Egyptian and Italian forensics found that Regeni’s body showed signs of torture that included beating and electric shocks to his genitals, as well as cigarette burns, bruises, cuts, multiple stab wounds, ripped-out nails and broken fingers. These are all typical signs of police brutality in Egypt. According to an autopsy that was conducted in Rome, Regeni died after a cervical vertebra was broken. Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano said that Regeni suffered “inhumane” and “animal-like” violence, and that Italian authorities strongly suspect Egyptian security forces interrogated Regeni to learn about the contacts he made with workers and activists as part of his research.
After the autopsy reports came out, Egyptian authorities then suggested that Regeni may have been killed by a criminal gang impersonating police officers to rob foreigners. Furthermore, Egyptian officials also claimed that they found some of Regeni’s belongings in the home of one of the gang members, who were all allegedly shot and killed by police. This claim was widely ridiculed in Italy, with the chief Italian prosecutor saying that “there are no elements to directly link the gang to the torture and death of Giulio Regeni”. This led to the Italy announcing that it was withdrawing its ambassador to Egypt to protest what it has called a lack of cooperation in the joint investigation between the two nations. Italy’s foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni had specifically asked Egyptian officials for cellphone data and surveillance footage that could help determine the precise circumstances of Regeni’s disappearance. That request was never met, which raised suspicions that Egypt wanted to delay the investigation because its own security forces were responsible.
Outrage over Regeni’s death has been increasing in Italy, where his parents spoke in front of a large banner that read “Truth for Giulio Regeni” at Italy’s Senate. Regeni’s parents have been calling on Italian authorities to declare Egypt an “unsafe” destination for travel, with his father telling an Italian news agency that “we have never had the feeling that the Egyptian government wants to cooperate seriously”.
A further deterioration of relations between the two nations would spell disaster for Egypt. Italy had previously been one of Egypt’s strongest allies, with Rome being one Egypt’s most enthusiastic backers of its efforts to stamp out Islamist insurgencies in the Sinai Peninsula and in neighboring Libya. Furthermore, Italy has been Egypt’s largest trade partner within the European Union, and third internationally, following the United States and China. Egypt has been benefiting more from this partnership, with Egyptian imports to Italy accounting for $3.5 billion and Italian exports valuing at $2.7 billion. Trade between the two nations hit $6 billion in 2014, with Italy being the most important importer for Egyptian products, which include cotton, fruit, vegetables, plastic products and aluminum.
The recall of the ambassador has been the lowest point in a relationship that has already been greatly strained by the lack of progress in the investigation. Regeni’s family thinks he was targeted by Egyptian security forces because of his doctoral research, in a continuation of an Egyptian crackdown on dissent. This claim is not unfounded, as torture and police abuses were one of the main reasons Egyptians began protesting against the Mubarak regime in the first place.
According to a Human Rights Watch report from 2011, “Torture is an endemic problem in Egypt and ending police abuse has been a driving element behind the massive popular demonstrations that swept Egypt over the past week”. The report also delves into cases of abuses against Egyptian citizens, specifically stating that “law enforcement officers routinely and deliberately use torture and ill-treatment – in ordinary criminal cases as well as with political dissidents and security detainees – to coerce confessions, extract other information, or simply to punish detainees.”
As a result, the outrage in Italy may have standing, due to Egypt’s abysmal record of torturing its own people for political reasons. The case of Regeni may finally be shedding light on what many Egyptians have been protesting against for years, because it has happened to a foreigner and another nation is demanding accountability. As a result, the relationship between the two nations may continue to deteriorate, as public outrage in Italy may lead to further severing of economic and political bonds