Mayor Giuliano Pisapia, President of the City Council Basilio Rizzo and municipal councillors, hold "Truth banner for Giulio Regeni" on the balcony of Palazzo Marino (Milan City Hall ) March 2, 2016. Wikicommons/Comune di Milano. Some rights reserved.I never knew Giulio Regeni personally. We corresponded briefly in 2014, as he was seeking advice on where to undertake his doctoral studies. We had quite a few friends in common though, as we were both young scholars from the same country, Italy, affiliated to institutions in the same country, the UK, and working broadly on similar topics, at the intersection between the neoliberal reforms of the Egyptian economy and authoritarian state power.
It is undoubtedly also for this reason that I felt directly affected by the long week between 25 January and 3 February of last year, between the moment in which Giulio disappeared and the one in which his body was found in a ditch on the desert road from Cairo to Alexandria, bearing the signs of a violence too many people have been subjected to in Egypt.
I was a lucky one, in many respects. I carried out the bulk of my research in Cairo in the spring and summer of 2010, when popular discontent was clearly brewing, but Egyptian elites were revelling in what they perceived as the success of the economic reforms they implemented under the supervision of international financial institutions. Those were the years of the neoliberal hubris, and this self-confidence among the economic and political elites meant that key people were keen to talk to a foreign researcher studying the effects of privatisations and liberalisations on the Egyptian economy.
As the current regime is gripped by paranoia and fear, and itself grips its citizens in a paralysing fear, I am fully aware that even research of this type – elite-centric, so to say – would be much more difficult to pursue today.
More and more types of research are being increasingly obstructed by the regime, even in areas that are clearly irrelevant for the stability of the regime. A vivid example of this was provided by Khaled Fahmy last year on Mada Masr. A prominent historian of XIX century Egypt, Fahmy found in the National Archives in Cairo a map from the Mohamed Ali era (1830s) about Ottoman enemy positions in Jaffa. His request for permission to photocopy the map was denied on ground of national security. Access to a map from nearly two hundred years ago, representing a territory that does not even belong to Egypt, can now be seen as a threat to national security in Egypt.
This is an especially paradoxical example of the troubles encountered by many researchers, often Egyptians, working in the humanities and the social sciences. It is also as a reaction to this threat to basic academic freedoms that the involvement of the University College Union (UCU) in the campaign seeking truth for Giulio Regeni is especially worthwhile.
Although without being directly involved, I have been following the campaign by Amnesty International Italy, which has had a central role in supporting the Regeni family in seeking truth for Giulio. Their work is worth mentioning in this context also in light of their achievements, in the face of relentless pressures towards a normalisation of relations between Egypt and Italy. The most notable victory so far has been preventing the new Italian ambassador to Egypt, Giampaolo Cantini, from being sent to Cairo. Another important objective was achieved last summer, when the Italian Senate voted to suspend the export of F-16 parts to Egypt.
Much more recently, Amnesty International Italy wrote a letter to Claudio Descalzi, CEO of the partly state-owned hydrocarbons giant ENI, which has recently committed to invest $10 billion in Egypt over the next five years. In light of this financial commitment, the change in tone on the part of ENI’s communications representative, who called Egypt ‘un paese amico’ (a country that is our friend) on Twitter, was rightly seen as alarming and prompted a letter asking ENI to exert pressure on the Egyptian government to fully cooperate with Italian authorities. This appears to be a new development in the campaign, beyond its previous focus on parliament and the government and towards targeting Italian companies with large interests in Egypt.
However, this is not only about western white male researchers working at major UK universities, and this is where the Amnesty International UK’s campaign comes in, linking Giulio to the plight of the hundreds of disappeared in Egypt. As Lucia Sorbera put it, ‘Giulio’s case is a global case, a symbol of the violence of the Egyptian regime and the complicity of western regimes’.
As someone influenced by the work of Antonio Gramsci, I am convinced that the increasing resort to coercion shows the inability of the Sisi regime to win the consent of its population and meet the demands of ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ at the heart of the revolution. Given this internal fragility, targeting the international support lending a veneer of legitimacy to the regime is essential, as it provides an opportunity to corner the Egyptian regime into cooperating fully in the investigations concerning Giulio’s disappearance and murder, as well as in shedding light on the ever more systematic forced disappearance of Egyptian citizens.
It is for this reason that we must keep the pressure up, and demand truth for Giulio Regeni and justice for Egypt’s disappeared.