North Africa, West Asia

Remembering against the tide: Giulio Regeni and the transnational horizons of memory

Two years after the murder of Giulio Regeni, the call for truth and justice has yet to be answered. 

Franco Palazzi Michela Pusterla
25 January 2018
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A Berlin mural for Giulio Regeni, by El Teneen.On January 25th, 2016 Giulio Regeni, a young Italian graduate student at Cambridge, was kidnapped by local security forces, who later tortured and killed him. Right after, a transnational campaign asking for truth and justice was launched by Regeni’s fellows at Cambridge, his family, and the Italian Section of Amnesty International, while Rome and Cairo attorneys began their investigations – which are now stuck in the mud: two years later, the call for truth and justice has yet to be answered.


Giulio Regeni was an Italian PhD candidate at Cambridge, who moved to Cairo for his fieldwork, researching independent trade unions, especially that of street vendors, in post-2011 Egypt. After disappearing on January 25th, 2016 — on the anniversary of the beginning of the 2011 uprisings — his tortured corpse was found on February 3rd, on the outskirts of Cairo. Despite several implausible and toxic narrations, fabricated by Egyptian investigators and reported by some Italian media, all the evidence collected so far by independent media investigations, scholarly analyses, and a New York Times reportage unanimously points to the conclusion that Regeni was tortured and killed by Egyptian security services.

Political violence is one of the few available ways for the regime to show its waning sovereignty 

Since al-Sisi’s military coup in 2013, Egypt - having a long history of human rights violations by its authorities - experienced a further increase in repressive measures, with tens of thousands of people held in custody as political opponents, a massive recourse to torture and enforced disappearances, and a widespread lack of rule of law. The development of a paranoid and media-induced xenophobia has been part and parcel of such a process (Declich 2016: 79-84). As argued by Maged Mandour, the current expansion of coercive apparatuses and increasingly frequent use of torture has reached such an extent to become partly counterproductive: like a ritual display of power, the use of political violence is one of the few available ways for the regime to show its waning sovereignty (cf. Brown 2010; Wadivel 2006).

Giulio Regeni was a polyglot, well-travelled, cosmopolitan Italian citizen, and Cambridge PhD student. As we have already shown in an article from last year, Regeni’s identity would have placed him in a high position in what, following Judith Butler (2004; 2009), we may call the hierarchies of grief, potentially making him a perfect martyr for the so called western public sphere - while Egyptian victims aren’t. However, reality didn’t really confirm this expectation. Being a liminal and polyhedral figure, Regeni couldn’t fit univocal narratives and illegitimate appropriations. His leftism prevented the nationalist reduction; his “exceptionally brilliant” intellectual career abroad hampered the national-popular elaboration, while the appropriation “from the left” was prevented by the fragmentation of the Italian institutional left, the indifference of the Italian Democratic Party, and the biographical absence of Regeni from the recent history of Italian social movements.

This difficulty of appropriation went hand in hand with one of signification. From a western perspective, Regeni’s death didn’t take place within a context of war or struggle: his family and fellows had no immediate horizon of meaning according to which to signify his death. However, there was no similar difficulty for Egyptian activists, who immediately traced the murderers’ profiles and appropriated Regeni’s death as that of “one of us”, one of the “martyrs of the Egyptian revolution.” Nonetheless, when some awareness of the responsibility of the Egyptian government reached the Italian shores, two parallel processes of signification took place: Regeni became either a “hero” (e.g. [1]; [2]; [3]) or “victim” (e.g. [1]; [2]; [3]). As a hero, he was celebrated for his academic achievements, within a “self-made man” rhetorical framework: in other words, this process created a single “hero” abstracted from the context, thus inhibiting a political understanding of his death. On the other hand, the idea of Regeni as a victim spread widely. This narrative, which was not wrong in itself, had nonetheless dangerous implications: it implemented a semantic shift, according to which the researcher was no longer a victim only because he had been tortured and killed without fault (as he actually was), but also because he had been “unable to save himself.”

A victimisation of this kind was all but innocent, since in many cases it coincided with the reassertion of the untenable (e.g. Beccaria and Marcucci 2016) account claiming that Regeni, despite his good faith, had been used as an “unaware spy” by a vague array of subjects (Cambridge university, British secret services…) supposedly interested in collecting the information he was putting together for his doctoral dissertation. Such a narrative process (Regeni killed as a fatality of a “bigger game”) was accompanied by a process of feminisation - or at least de-virilisation - of the figure of the researcher. This shift has been made possible by a series of traits that may fall within the cultural sphere of “weakness:” his being young, intellectual, precarious researcher (therefore poor), left-wing, and victim of betrayal (by the double-jeweler trade unionist Mohammed Abdallah). It should be added that this narration comes from people who embody in various ways its antithesis, observing Regeni with paternalistic compassion - especially in the Italian public sphere, where the leading role of Regeni’s parents implies for many people the presentation of the researcher always as “someone’s son,” and not as an autonomous subject.

The portrait painted by Egyptian activists was more faithful to his person than its Italian mainstream counterpart

While several Italian depictions of Regeni failed to truly represent his identity precisely because they abstracted his figure from the necessary background, the portrait painted by Egyptian activists was more faithful to his person than its Italian mainstream counterpart. This very fact opened the possibility of a radical remembrance, one that could simultaneously ask for truth and justice for Regeni and for Egyptians’ lives, making them grieveable — and politically meaningful — even from a western standpoint. It was there that Regeni’s case started revealing its critical potential.


As early as last January we noticed how the memory of the researcher drawn up by Egyptian activists was more faithful and respectful of his figure than the sometimes grotesque distortions proposed by the Italian media. Precisely in this element we have seen the possibility of a radical use of memory - that is, of remembering Giulio without obliterating the analogous fate of the many Egyptian victims - through the notion of exemplarity, in the light of which the example belongs to a class, but while it exhibits and delimits it, it extends beyond its margins, thus coming to adjoin with the twin concept of exception (cf. Agamben 1998: 20-27). In other words: Regeni perfectly exemplified the violence of the repressive al-Sisi regime, but at the same time its western status made him an exception in the endless list of victims. Because of this exceptionality, its exemplary nature was increased: neither his passport, nor the colour of his skin, nor his affiliation to one of the most prestigious universities in the world have prevented the ordinary violence of Egyptian security apparatuses from knocking on Regeni. Hence the evocative potential of his figure for local activists. However, since January 2016, such a possibility for a radical use of memory has been curtailed, as we have seen, on both sides of the Mediterranean. Italian and Egyptian governments and diplomacies seemed, and still seem, to ignore Regeni’s case almost as much as they ignore the local victims.

Over the past year, a progressive normalisation of the diplomatic relations between the two countries took place. Italy’s only diplomatic action against Egypt – the recall of the Italian ambassador in Cairo, Maurizio Massari, in April 2016 – was later cancelled by a replacement: ambassador Giampaolo Cantini landed in Cairo on September, 14th 2017. The restoration of the status quo ante was explained by the members of the Italian Foreign Affairs parliamentary Commissions with these words: “Human rights cannot overly affect our international relations, otherwise we should review diplomatic relations with dozens of states.” The re-normalisation of diplomatic relations was also legitimised by recalling Italian economic and geopolitical interests in Egypt. The central point in this connection is the Libyan question and the so-called “European migration crisis”, as shown by the parallel evolution of the two dossiers over this last summer.

The quest for truth about Regeni’s killing is traded for the faculty to realise a work of collective amnesia on a large scale

If Renzi’s cabinet (2014-2016) had already promoted agreements to stop migratory flows through Niger, current Minister of the Interior Minniti recently orchestrated a drastic extension of the strategy to Libya (and again Niger), also signing a neocolonial agreement with Serraj’s Coast Guard, who are quite close to the traffickers themselves. Considering both Serraj’s weakness and General Haftar’s power in the eastern region of Libya, Italy needed Sisi to intercede with Haftar, to fully control migrant policies in Libya. Every transnational encounter between Egyptian and Italian authorities would end with some empty rhetorical words on the Regeni case: Egyptians would reaffirm their willingness to collaborate, Italians would renew their confidence in Cairo investigators. As powerfully summarised by Mattia Toaldo, “Italy gave up the search for truth about a murder to reduce the influx of migrants.” In this connection, the shocking human rights violations taking place in Libya, with the demonstrated collusion of Italian and European authorities, show us a depressing scenario: the quest for truth about Regeni’s killing is traded for the faculty to realise a work of collective amnesia on a large scale - an amnesia of all the lives upset or lost in the Mediterranean, or at the periphery of the empire.

After the Sinai mosque attack in November 2017, the rhetorics of Sisi as an hero of the western “war against terrorism” was boosted. According to right-wing senator Maurizio Gasparri, Egypt is “an ally under terrorist attack” and “it is useless and self-destructive to continue with demagogic propaganda speeches, while not acting in concrete support of the Egyptians” - where the propaganda speeches are those asking for truth and justice in the Regeni case.

In the meantime, the economic relations between the two countries continued successfully: in the first three months of 2017 they recorded a 30% increase in trade – without considering the energy sector, while Eni (once the National Hydrocarbons Authority, now a multinational company) opened the Zohr gas field, a huge gas site off the Egyptian coast, discovered just after Regeni’s death and worth 7 billion EUR of investments. Even the sale of weapons by Italian companies to Egyptian security corps – the same ones implicated in thousands of “Regeni cases” – has increased.

The will of removing the focus from the real political and judicial responsibilities in Egypt and Italy took several forms - one of the most false, offensive, and dangerous being the accusations addressed to Cambridge university and Regeni’s supervisor, professor Maha Abdelrahman, by several Italian politicians and media (e.g. newspaper La Repubblica). The accusation of non-cooperation addressed to Cambridge University and professor Abdelrahman was journalistically assembled in Italy in June 2016, as shown by Lorenzo Declich, and it is still mediatically powerful. In this regard, The Guardian published several letters in solidarity with professor Abdelrahman, signed by hundreds of professors and scholars: Regeni’s fieldwork followed high standard research protocols, and any accusation of ingenuity against him or his professor is nothing but victim blaming. This phenomenon has even escalated in the occasion of Abdelrahman’s recent testimony in front of Italian investigators. However, even Cambridge is not safe from any criticism. According to our sources, the university had been advised by its lawyers to keep a low profile, keeping out of the spotlight in order to protect its reputation. As professor Lucia Sorbera pointed out, Cambridge, as any neoliberal university, has taken on “the posture of the corporate world, i.e. legalistic attitudes and distance from every official stance,” in continuity with the choice of outsourcing to students and precarious researchers risks and responsibilities.


Over the past months, several efforts to erase the political potential of memory have been put in place. By re-sending its ambassador to Cairo, Italy ended the only diplomatic action it had done in the name of Giulio Regeni: contemporarily and coherently, Italy has ignited an “institutional memory” process, whose only purpose is to historicise Regeni’s figure and confine it to the past, thus discarding any political and institutional responsibility in the present. In other words, what we are witnessing is an attempt to transform the researcher into an exception without exemplary potential, a bi-dimensional icon existing in spatiotemporal isolation.

For example, the announcement of the ambassador’s return was made on the fourth anniversary of the Rabaa massacre - in which the army, led by Sisi, killed a thousand supporters of the Morsi government. Depicting Egypt as worthy of stable diplomatic relations, Italian authorities accordingly disavowed its bloody recent past. At the same time, state-controlled Egyptian media have welcomed Italy’s decision as an acknowledgement of the fact that the Regeni case is now closed, and local security services had nothing to do with it (e.g. [1]; [2]; [3]).

The long-term objective is to historicise the figure of Regeni and relegate it to the past, thus nullifying all political responsibility in the present and in the future

On the other hand, when announcing the return of the ambassador, Italian Minister Angelino Alfano has also announced the dedication of an Italian-Egyptian university and the auditorium of the Italian Institute of Culture in Cairo to the murdered researcher (both of which never took place), in addition to holding commemorative ceremonies in all Italian institutional offices in Egypt and, perhaps, the dedication of The Mediterranean Games of 2018 to him (which will probably not happen). Alfano demonstrates that he believes, at least instrumentally, in the mythopoeic function of institutions in producing memory on a national scale: on the one hand, announcing the commitment of the state in the memorial process would serve to counteract the lack of interest from the political point of view; on the other, the long-term objective is to historicise the figure of Regeni and relegate it to the past, thus nullifying all political responsibility in the present and in the future, and neutralising the radical potential of Regeni’s remembrance.

Basically, what is being proposed is a space-time confinement of memory. Objectified within commemorations that embalm the absence of truth and justice for his death, Regeni becomes two-dimensional, iconic, without depth and specificity – therefore not waiting to receive a particular explanation for a particular destiny. It is a flat generalisation that makes any comparison impossible: if Regeni is considered a victim of human cruelty – instead of a victim of his murderers – his figure becomes abstract, decreasing the possibility for Egyptians to identify with him. On the temporal level, it is a stasis: memory is frozen, it is no longer a resource for creating alliances with victims of other crimes that occurred at other times. The ritual, in this sense, inhibits any diachronic reading in contrast with the power-imposed chronology. In this way, an apparent apotheosis coincides with a damnatio memoriae: the very way in which the history of Regeni is consecrated renders his biography incomprehensible exactly when it cuts the link with the political context in which it was prematurely concluded. 

The Italian authorities, therefore, are proposing a conservative safekeeping of memory. Such an attempt to trigger a (domesticated) national memorial process reopens, however, the question of how a radical transnational memory should act.

Not all voices and memories are silenced in the same way, nor to the same extent

First of all, in the face of such an organised form of indirect censorship, a radical view of memory should probably be an openly polemical one, challenging the purported objectivity of official memory as elaborated by public authorities – indeed, the mise en scène of state impartiality, its self-positioning as “the point of view overlooking all points of view”  (Bourdieu 2014[1990]: 5), is a considerably ancient phenomenon, one which imaginary communities such as nations have been founded upon (Anderson 2006 [1983]: chap. 11). We may even say that politics is, in a sense, the way to make the unthinkable thinkable: if one of the most frequent kinds of oppression involves, in fact, the forced relegation of entire categories of people into a private, extra-political dimension - from which complaints may arise but intelligible speeches cannot – then a political narration is first of all an intervention on what can be seen and said, the inclusion of a conflict within the consensual illusion of the status quo  (cf. Rancière 2001: §§7-8). In this connection, it is important to notice that not all voices and memories are silenced in the same way, nor to the same extent.

One of the most important features of exemplarity is that it can acknowledge these differences: it is activated, as mentioned above, by its rhetorically ambiguous position between the part and the whole, between exception and inclusion. This position emphasises, on the one hand, the common human vulnerability to violence and the existential core of the experience of loss (Butler 2004: 20) - think of Regeni’s mother, Paola Deffendi, and her call to Egyptian mothers who are in a situation similar to hers. On the other hand, it allows us not to elude the very unequal distribution that this vulnerability assumes for different people (Butler 2009: 3;43) - moreover, it requires us not to essentialise the pain deriving from suffering injustice, which can result in qualitatively different experiences for subjects with different degrees of subalternity (cf. Honig 2010: 8-9; Thobani 2007: 176-177). In other words, the example makes a series of stories identifiable as coming from the same class without making them identical.

The choices made by the Italian government and its Egyptian counterpart have certainly attempted to lessen the possibility that the remembrance of Regeni’s fate may carry that of thousands of Egyptian victims. Undeniably, this circumstance partially defuses the dynamics of exemplarity, but it is at the same time the confirmation of its relevance, of its capacity to destabilise those in power through the creation of new alliances. Now more than ever, therefore, there are no ways of claiming justice for Regeni that can disregard the broader contours where his murder is placed. The aim of activists on both sides of the Mediterranean should be, then, to ensure that the myriad of other stories of injustice that the researcher’s death may recall do not disappear or lose their specificity. It will consequently be necessary to bring out these stories from the generic plural that in the western public sphere makes them a mere collective counterpart of Regeni’s singular experience.

An important clarification is needed at this point. We cannot fail to declare the biased perspective from which we ourselves are writing: that, among other things, of those who have the privilege of being able to discuss the repressive measures implemented in Egypt without having to fear for their own safety. Our emphasis on a conflictual declination of memory is in no way intended to minimise the material, dangerous conditions faced by those who are currently opposing the al-Sisi regime. In today’s Egypt, fear is now becoming a panoptical technique: even people who are not actually under the lens of the capillary security apparatus feel constantly observed and limit their behaviour accordingly.

Egyptian activists do not of course need a spokesperson, but critical allies

At the same time, considerations of this sort must not lead to a bracketing of the voices of opposition that continue to rise from that country. It is certainly true that the climate of terror created by the regime pollutes the very fabric of society, permeating even the daily dynamics, but, as noted by Helena Nassif writing about field research in Egypt after the death of Regeni, the psychophysical experience of fear can become a powerful ethnographic instrument (see also here), such as to make the perspective of the witness more acute than that of the mere observer (cf. also Nassif 2017). In other words, the Egyptian activists do not of course need a spokesperson, but critical allies - that is to say, allies by virtue of a solidarity that does not aestheticize their disobedience against the authorities through an updated form of orientalism (cf. Tedesco 2017: 124-135). Only an alliance between western and Egyptian subaltern voices may be able to succeed in the quest for truth and justice for Giulio and the myriads of other activists and common people, who are victims of Sisi’s regime.

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