Italy-Egypt oil and weapons deals undermine justice for Regeni

As Egypt and Italy trade weapons and oil, justice for Regeni fades from view
6 min read
17 Dec, 2020
Comment: Italy's PM Conte knows he can back the prosecution of Egyptian officials without undermining Italy's close trade and 'security' links with the Sisi regime, writes Sam Hamad.
Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni was murdered in Cairo nearly five years ago [Getty]
It's been four years since Italian prosecutors first began an extensive investigation of the brutal murder of Italian PhD student, Giulio Regeni in Cairo.  

Last week, the prosecutors, armed with new evidence proving Egyptian security forces had monitored Regeni for a month prior to his murder, as well as eyewitness accounts and a forensic reconstruction of his abduction and murder, formally charged four members of Egypt's security apparatus for the kidnapping and murder of Regeni. 

Captain Uhsam Helmi, Major Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif, Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim and Tariq Saber, all of the Egyptian National Security Agency (NSA), have been named as the perpetrators.

The Sisi regime has characteristically attempted over the years to cover up and impede the Italian investigation, refusing to hand over evidence, while making outlandish claims that Regeni was killed by a car crash or, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Regeni was carrying out doctoral research on Egypt's independent trade unions. On 25 January, 2016, the 28-year-old Cambridge University student disappeared.

His body was found nine days later, dumped unceremoniously in a ditch beside the Cairo-Alexandria highway on the outskirts of the capital, half-naked and showing signs of the most grotesque torture.

Regeni's death bore all the hallmarks of the notorious forced disappearances that have become a terrifying aspect of Sisi's Egypt

To Egyptians, and those who understand how the Egyptian security services operate, the manner of Regeni's death bore all the hallmarks of the notorious forced disappearances that have become a terrifying aspect of the transition of Egypt under Sisi into a totalitarian state.  

Hundreds of people in 2016 alone were disappeared by the regime in 2016, but, as is the perverse hierarchy of victimhood in Egypt, it was Regeni's that garnered the most attention. 

During the reign of Mubarak, this kind of violence was not only less widespread than under Sisi, but having a European or American passport essentially made you immune. Violence on that level was reserved for Egyptians, one of the most notable cases being that of Khaled Said.

But not under Sisi. 

There are many reasons why Regeni was targeted, most notably his continued support for the revolutionary uprising that gripped the country in 2011, the reality is that the counterrevolutionary regime wanted to send a message with his death: no one is safe.

It doesn't matter if you hold a European or American passport, if you are even remotely critical of the regime, you will be treated with the same brutality as Egyptians. 

Read more: Video evidence shows Egyptian security agents monitored Guilio Regeni for weeks

One theory suggests the Sisi regime might eventually admit the involvement of the security forces, but claim that they had gone rogue and were acting of their own volition. Such an argument would be persuasive if this regime hadn't murdered over 1,000 pro-democracy political opponents in a single day. Or if it hadn't disappeared an untold amount of perceived political opponents, while operating torture dungeons and concentration camps that claim the lives of many of the inmates. This is a regime that carries out mass executions and war crimes against its own people. 

The violence inflicted upon Regeni is typical of the Sisi regime and its modus operandi, making grand gestures to terrorise anyone who might consider criticising it, with the aim of snuffing out any means of dissent, foreign or domestic.

As a result, Regeni's parents persistence in driving forward this prosecution in Italy could send a counter message to the brutal one the Sisi regime sent with the murder of their son, namely that they can't simply get away with their machinations cost free. 

If the prosecution is successful, Sisi will know that the crimes of his regime are not above all forms of law, and leave the perpetrators open to arrest if they are ever to travel abroad. It will force liberal democracies in Europe and elsewhere to uphold the values they allegedly represent, as opposed to ensuring the antithesis of such values prosper and ultimately become ever more normalised. 

Any true "cost" to the Sisi regime depends wholly on the Italian government's commitment to backing the prosecution with real pressure on Sisi. 

The reality is that the counterrevolutionary regime wanted to send a message with his death: no one is safe

In an interview with La Stampa, the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte said Egypt "must and can" do more in "collaborating" with Italy over the case. 

"This story makes us grieve," Conte added, "but now a trial by our judicial authorities will start."

This might sound good, but Conte has been a slippery operator on this matter. In response to the murder of Regeni and the obvious role of the Egyptian state in it, Italy's lower legislative house the Chamber of Deputies cut all diplomatic ties with its Egyptian equivalent, but this kind of action has not been matched by the elected government.

In fact, in June, Conte claimed that the Regeni case is still a major element of Egypt-Italian relations, right before he struck another massive $1.3 billion arms deal with Sisi. Some of the weapons and torture devices used on Regeni may even have been sourced from Italy.  

Conte knows he can back the prosecution of the Egyptian officials without having to do anything that would undermine Italy's close trade and "security" links with the Sisi regime. There's no extradition treaty between Italy and Egypt, so as long as the regime continues to deny any responsibility, Conte can hide behind this, and cynical talk of the need to maintain "dialogue" to sweep Regeni's murder under the carpet, and keep Italy's lucrative ties with Egypt alive and well. 

Italy's Eni - of the world's largest state-controlled oil and gas companies - has a $16 billion investment in Egypt's Mediterranean Zohr gas field. In the squalid world of political realism, this level of economic activity between the two countries is worth more than the life of a student.

This is something that Regeni's family grimly understands.  Speaking at a press conference, his mother Paola attacked the government: "We request that our ambassador be recalled immediately… Egypt should be designated an 'unsafe country' and we should block the sale of all weapons… What [is]… Conte… doing for Giulio and why have our relations with Egypt become increasingly friendly?"

We know that Europe doesn't care about the lives of the millions of Egyptians affected by Sisi's totalitarianism, but you'd think they'd want to draw a line under the murder of "one of their own", so to speak. But not in this day and age, wherein the brutal forces of totalitarianism become ever more normal on the world stage. 

Just last week,  Emmanuel Macron despicably rewarded Sisi with the Légion d'honneur despite his human rights record - the reality is that Sisi's brutal totalitarianism will once again triumph, aided and abetted by European democracies. 


Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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