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Markaz

Why an Italian student’s murder in Egypt could spell big trouble for the Sissi regime

Over the course of my career, I have watched Egypt’s transformation from an authoritarian state to a revolutionary one and back again. But last month’s murder of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni (with some pointing fingers at Egyptian security forces) illuminates that today’s Egypt is even less safe, less free, and less tolerant than it was under Hosni Mubarak—an impressive feat. The disintegration in Egypt’s security environment could haunt the country and its leaders, as it will only push international travelers and researchers further from its shores.

Fear and loathing in Cairo

In 2010, shortly before the 2011 revolution, I lived in Cairo interviewing civil society activists and government officials on the ability of NGOs to challenge the Mubarak regime. I returned a few months after the uprising to a very different Egypt. 

In some ways, the environment had become more hospitable for discussing democracy and seeking honest assessments of the regime. Egyptians were still brimming with hope that the revolution would bring them the Egypt they had fought for and expressed overwhelming pride in their accomplishments in Tahrir Square. They were forthcoming with critiques of the former regime and inspired to begin by participating in politics, overturning the draconian NGO law, and founding innovative organizations to help usher in an era of democracy in Egypt. 

But in other ways, the conditions in Egypt had become dangerous. The security situation was precarious, as a post-revolutionary crime wave and general lawlessness keeping Egyptians at home and tourists away. For the first time, I hired a driver to ensure my safety. I was afraid to walk alone at night, ride the metro, or hang out in the same cafes I had frequented during my trips to Mubarak’s Egypt. 

Ironically, I was also far more cognizant of the security services in this new “freer” Egypt than I had been in past visits. The vestiges of Mubarak’s security apparatus remained, but they were operating under different and far more arbitrary and kinetic rules, making it challenging to identify—and avoid—redlines. I heard stories of NGO raids that were no different from the Mubarak era and possibly more punitive, with pro-regime security forces hoping to exact revenge on the activists who unseated their leader. Frustration and anger towards foreigners—governments, donor organizations, and even researchers—had emerged among civil society actors, who believed that Washington, in particular, was meddling in a process that was home-grown. Civil society activists whose NGOs had been fully reliant on international funding vowed to no longer take USAID money, for example. And although I was a full-time doctoral student with no ties to the U.S. government, some of those whom I interviewed distrusted my motives and saw me and other foreign scholars as inextricably linked to our governments. 

I heard stories of NGO raids that were no different from the Mubarak era and possibly more punitive, with pro-regime security forces hoping to exact revenge on the activists who unseated their leader.

Pining for yesterday

But the atmosphere in the immediate aftermath of the revolution was nothing like that of today’s Egypt. The murder of Italian national and Cambridge University student Giulio Regeni, who was last seen alive in Cairo on January 25 (the five-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution), has sparked outrage around the world. The Italian ambassador to Egypt has said that Regeni’s autopsy revealed “clear, unequivocal marks of violence, beating and torture.” Egyptian security officials have admitted taking Regeni into custody. And while the Ministry of Interior subsequently denied such reports, Egyptian State Prosecutor Ahmed Nagi would not rule out police involvement in his murder. 

Despite the similarity of Regeni’s case to “widespread” reports of torture and forced disappearances by the Egyptian security services, we do not know for sure who is responsible for Regeni’s murder. Scholars across the globe have called on the Egyptian government to conduct a thorough and honest investigation. But regardless of the outcome, the very perception that students are no longer safe in Cairo has caused great harm to Egypt. The very fact that scholars, some of whom have studied Egyptian politics for decades, believe that the Egyptian Security Services could have committed this crime speaks volumes about the state of repression there. 

The very fact that scholars, some of whom have studied Egyptian politics for decades, believe that the Egyptian Security Services could have committed this crime speaks volumes about the state of repression there.

Not all press is good press

Regeni’s violent and tragic death and the Egyptian government’s response have far-reaching implications for Egypt. First, the sheer volume of attention on the Regeni case has caused harm to Egypt’s already decaying reputation. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s regime is engaged in a crackdown on freedom of expression surpassing that of Mubarak. As the leadership of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA)—the most prominent academic organization on the Middle East—rightly note in an open letter to the Egyptian regime, Regeni’s case is not an exception, but rather the latest example of an increasingly vicious attack on freedom of expression in Egypt. As the MESA letter states, “human rights reports suggest that academics, journalists and legal professionals are in greater danger of falling victim to arbitrary state repression today than at any time since the establishment of the republic in 1953.” This was particularly true in the weeks leading to the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, as the state sought to quiet any public discontent before it started. 

But unlike the hundreds of cases of forced disappearances and systematic torture of Egyptians in custody, the sheer brutality of Regeni’s murder and his status as a young, Western scholar, have made it difficult for Western states to ignore and have shed much needed light on the escalating attack on the rights and freedoms of both foreigners and Egyptians. Most clearly, Egypt’s relationship with an important political and economic partner, Italy, is tarnished. And the suspected state involvement in torture is now an issue that Western interlocutors must raise with their Egyptian counterparts, obliging the Egyptian government to address, or at least find a way to dance around, the issue.

the suspected state involvement in torture is now an issue that Western interlocutors must raise with their Egyptian counterparts, obliging the Egyptian government to address, or at least find a way to dance around, the issue.

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Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry happened to be in Washington when the circumstances of Regeni’s death was made public. His tone-deaf public responses were telling. He not only flatly denied that Egypt is engaged in a widespread crackdown on freedom of expression, he even compared Egypt’s critics, including internationally respected human rights organizations, to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Shoukry’s response, so undiplomatic and divorced from reality, is unlikely to quiet Egypt’s critics. Rather, it will keep Regeni’s death (and the issue of security service abuses) in the international press even longer. 

This sort of public attention is something that the Mubarak regime would have taken seriously. Mubarak regularly acknowledged and attempted to diffuse, albeit often ineffectively, accusations of human rights abuses under his watch, often justifying repression in the name of security. But the Sissi regime’s response has been far less strategic, and this has potentially dangerous consequences. By ignoring the festering wound the regime has created for itself by torturing, jailing, disappearing, and killing those who speak out against it, the infection will spread, not disappear. 

Fading from view?

Another outcome of Regeni’s murder is that universities will steer their students away from studying in Cairo, traditionally one of the most popular destinations for American students of Arabic, and may discourage faculty from visiting as well. For the American University in Cairo (AUC), an institution known for high standards and academic freedom, the loss of foreign students and researchers could pose serious financial problems. 

That may not concern the regime, but it is not only AUC that will suffer from a deterioration of foreign contacts. Even prior to Regeni’s murder, some Western scholars believed it was too difficult and risky to conduct serious research in Egypt, and this trend will increase. Other scholars may still study Egypt, but will do so from a distance, rather than risking their lives on the ground there. 

This sort of public attention is something that the Mubarak regime would have taken seriously.

A dramatic decline in international academic contacts should worry the Egyptian government. This will greatly harm the world’s understanding of what is happening in a country that has proven time and again its importance to the region’s economy and political trajectory. Egyptian students and scholars will suffer as well, missing out on the important information and cultural education that comes from cross-border academic exchange. 

Not to mention that Egypt is in the midst of an economic crisis. Regeni’s death will likely keep Western tourists away, harming the tourism industry, which makes up over 10 percent of Egypt’s GDP, and which has failed to recover from dramatic declines during the revolution. 

A continued crackdown on freedom of expression and an increasingly dangerous environment for American and European visitors also has implications for Egypt’s diplomatic relationships. While Egypt’s history, size, and political role in the region will keep it on Washington’s radar, it risks joining the ranks of Somalia or Yemen or Libya—states with a limited (if any) diplomatic presence, and even more limited economic assistance package. The robust U.S.-Egyptian relationship—including several high-profile visits each year and a $1.5 billion aid package–is based, in part, on Egypt’s portrayal of itself as the “leader” of the Arab world and a country on the path toward democracy. If the Sissi regime continues to jail, torture, and murder its critics, including Western scholars, it will make it very challenging for the United States to continue this level of support. 

As Secretary of State John Kerry said last month following his meeting with Shoukry, Egypt is “going through a political transition. We very much respect the important role that Egypt plays traditionally within the region–a leader of the Arab world in no uncertain terms. And so the success of the transformation that is currently being worked on is critical for the United States and obviously for the region and for Egypt.”

The Egyptian government is underestimating the negative repercussions of Regeni’s death. Scholars like Regeni and me study Egypt and visit Egypt are driven by Egypt’s incredible history and because of its important cultural, economic, and political role in the modern Middle East. On my very first day in Cairo back in 2002, a kind Egyptian man took my hand and helped me cross the street amidst the infamously crazy Cairo traffic. When we safely made it across and the look of trepidation fell from my face, he told me to repeat after him, “Ana b’hib Masr” (I love Egypt). It was the first colloquial Egyptian phrase I learned and one I have repeated many times. But sadly, it is not one that I or other international researchers will likely be able to repeat in Egypt any time soon.

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