What remains of democracy? Egypt, Italy and ‘the lesser evil’ after Giulio Regeni

A thesis circulating for some time seeks the secret of the 28-year-old's death, not in the Al-Sisi regime, but for example in Cambridge. This is a dangerous distraction. Italiano.

Guido Rampoldi
25 January 2018

Protest demanding justice for the death of Giulio Regeni and other victims of the Al Sisi government in Egypt. Rome, Italy, on February 13, 2016. Ronchini Andrea/ Press Association. All rights reserved.Two years after the murder of Giulio Regeni, the truth finally seems at hand. Or at least we know where to look for it: in the murky academic environments of the University of Cambridge which cynically used the researcher, Giulio Regeni, to build a pro-Islamist conspiracy, perhaps even an anti-Italian conspiracy.

The fact that Regeni was killed in Cairo and not in Cambridge might be thought to be relevant, but even on that front as well, there is good news: the Egyptian Prosecutor, spurred on by the Italian government, has forwarded important papers to Rome, thus proving – as Interior Minister Minniti avows – the will of Al-Sisi to cooperate in the quest for the truth, from which clearly Field Marshal Sisi has nothing to fear.

This is roughly the sum of what has been read and heard in recent days, and it is enough to urgently ask the question which for two years has been hovering over this all-but-obscure affair: does Italy still have a news media, or has it decided stoically to do without? Retracing the contortions that Italian journalism has been capable of, we might well say the latter.

The arrest and murder of Giulio Regeni are overall uncomplicated, transparent events. Apparently reported on by an informant to the Egyptian secret services out of personal revenge or due to some misunderstanding, Regeni was arrested on the day most feared by the regime – January 25, the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, later extinguished by the coup of 2013 – and in the vicinity of a highly symbolic place, Tahrir Square, where the Uprising began[1].

The security apparatus that held the researcher tortured him for seven days and finally deliberately ended his life (with a karate chop, as the autopsy ascertained), probably to avoid him recounting what he had suffered. It is probable that the elimination of a westerner required the authorization of al-Sisi himself. In any case, the regime has been immovable in refusing to accept blame for that death. But after many uncouth lies, when it finally decided to concoct a convincing version of events, it ended up exposing itself. At the end of March 2016, almost two months after Giulio Regeni’s death, the police blamed the murder on five Egyptians who died in a strange 'gunfight' with security agents.

However, when the Italian embassy and the Regeni family lawyer, the combative Alessandra Ballerini, scrutinised events, it emerged that the researcher’s documents – which according to the regime had been found in the home of one of the Egyptians killed and which were thereby deemed to provide 'proof' of their responsibility – had in fact been planted there by a police officer. An officer whose name the Rome Public Prosecutor has since discovered.

This stunning own goal forced the Italian media and its many ‘muses’ to abandon the thesis which had until then been advanced by major newspapers and news outlets: namely that Regeni had been killed by enemies of Italy and of al-Sisi in order to ruin the fruitful friendship that has been woven between Rome and Cairo. Al-Sisi himself had made this narrative his own in an interview with La Repubblica (Italy’s second largest broadsheet) in which he recalled the many reasons that made this friendship precious to Italy, from ENI's gas fields to Egypt’s influence in Eastern Libya, as well as the mutual friendship and esteem that bound him personally to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

At the time, almost all Italian news media aligning themselves with Renzi’s position, ENI became a great publicist, and in the eyes of many journalists al-Sisi still appeared to be the 'lesser evil', a 'pro-Western' tyrant who keeps 'the Muslims' at bay with an unavoidable brutality. The sum of these factors resulted in highly selective news, built on the refusal to acknowledge the relation between Giulio Regeni’s murder and the methods of a putchist regime which had announced itself to the world by massacring 1,200 demonstrators and butchering hundreds more within its torture chambers.

Yet our sole interest must be confined to the death of Giulio Regeni, at least officially. So, if for example al-Sisi were to hand over three unsavoury types, we would return to greeting him, as Renzi did, as 'great friend', a 'statesman', and a 'saviour of the Mediterranean'. But since even this tactical withdrawal does not seem to be in the intentions of the regime, it is becoming complicated for the Italian government to reconcile two clearly contrasting goals, namely not to irritate Cairo while simultaneously pretending to maintain its commitment to an unfailing desire for truth.

This is the context in which what we might call 'the Cambridge hypothesis' emerges. Espoused by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and by Foreign Minister Angelo Alfano in a thundering volley of pronouncements, it suggests that Regeni's PhD supervisor has hidden the secret of his death, now presumed to be a conspiratorial masterplan lubricated by ten thousand pounds. There are nebulous investigative accounts which allude to this, in which whatever seems certain in the first paragraph becomes highly doubtful by the third.

Instead, even a basic knowledge of Egypt would suggest that the only context in which a conspiracy against Sisi can really take shape is at the summit of the military regime, which is certainly not within the reach of Cambridge academics. But presenting Regeni as the victim of some sort of score-settling between Egyptian secret services[3] appears to diminish the scandal of his death.

And shifting attention to the 'university track' helps justify al-Sisi’s return as our valued interlocutor[4]. In December, Italian newspapers reported without betraying even the least hesitation, that the dictator expressed to the Minister of the Interior Minniti his "sincere wish" to obtain "definitive results" in the investigation.

In turn, Minniti stuck to the script: he reiterated that Italy "demands the truth" and hailed the delivery of new documents to Italian investigators as proof of renewed collaboration. There was little of substance in those documents, but this fact was withheld from the media’s trusting readers.

The important thing was for the farce to continue, since nobody knows how to close it down. But when information becomes theatre by commission, when it is reduced to the recitation of texts suggested by powerful patrons, or at least a docile instrument of the system[5], what remains of a democracy?


[1] Protests started in the areas surrounding Cairo’s city centre, and elsewhere across the country – protests were unprecedented both in scale and in their nationwide geographical coverage.

[3] One of the early ‘theories’ explaining Giulio Regeni’s death was that part of Egypt’s intelligence services wanted to discredit Sisi, and killed Regeni as a way of embarrassing him before Italian authorities (an Italian trade delegation was in Cairo the day his body was found). This theory originated in the Egyptian press, and has all the hallmarks of disinformation typically seeded by regimes like Egypt’s.

[4] This is a reference to the highly controversial decision by the Rome government to return the Italian ambassador to Cairo – a decision announced on August 14th, perhaps Italy’s biggest public holiday, when nearly everyone is on holiday and few people are following the news. It should be noted that the decision was announced to the Regeni family a mere 15 minutes before it was officially communicated.

[5] The original says “sistema-Paese”, literally “system-Country”, which here means something similar to the Arabic nizaam (regime, system). The meaning is a corporatist management of all aspects of a country’s economic and public life.

This piece by Guido Rampoldi, published in its original version in Il Fatto Quotidiano, on January 23, 2018, is translated into English by Andrea Teti, published here by kind permission of the author.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData