For 22 months now, the words “searching for the truth” always call to mind Giulio Regeni, ever since Jan. 25, 2016, when he was kidnapped in Cairo and subjected to several days of secret imprisonment and lethal torture. “Searching for the truth” was exactly what Regeni, a doctoral student researching his thesis, was doing in the Egyptian capital.
“The truth” is exactly what millions of people and hundreds of local and cultural organizations in Italy are still asking for. But on Thursday, those words ended up outrageously associated with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. None other than our foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, described the Egyptian president as “a passionate discussion partner in the search for the truth.”
Two months ago, in September, as part of the rhetoric used to justify the return of the Italian ambassador to Cairo, Alfano had called Egypt an “essential partner” for Italy.
On Feb. 7, 2016, four days after the discovery of Regeni’s battered body, the same Alfano had said: “It was a punch in the gut, and I haven’t gotten my breath back yet. We could see the results of the autopsy. It’s something inhuman, animalistic violence. … Bringing the truth to light will also mean preventing other lives from being shattered in this way. … His death honors the whole of Italy; it is the sacrifice of a young man who was searching for the truth.”
Since then, it appears he “got his breath back” after all. Other lives have indeed been “shattered in this way,” and “bringing the truth to light” has become less of an important thing. And anyway, we can rest assured that Egyptian President el-Sisi is “passionately” searching for it.
How have we gotten to such an abysmally low point? El-Sisi reminded us just a few days ago, when he recalled the immediate political recognition given by the Italian Government to his regime — in addition to the weighty expressions of personal esteem by then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi — after his coup in July 2013.
Although repression was immediately unleashed in Egypt (with hundreds of dead in the streets, mass arrests, and targeted imprisonment of activists, human rights defenders, and journalists), Italy has kept pursuing that privileged relationship, authorizing for months on end the transfer of weapons and surveillance materials to the Egyptian security forces.
Disappearances and torture, facts of everyday life, were ignored, until the one who was kidnapped and tortured happened to be not one of the many “Egyptian Giulios,” but the Italian Giulio: Giulio Regeni. Since then, instead of passionately searching for the truth, the Egyptian authorities have been pursuing a strategy of ridiculous and offensive purported reconstructions, false leads — one of which also claimed the lives of five innocent people in the tragic “silver platter” frame-up around Easter 2016 — and obscene delays.
The temporary recall of the Italian ambassador in April last year was the only decision made by the government. But a year later, an obsessive political and media campaign, which made use of opinions by former ambassadors, former NGO presidents, journalists and parliamentarians, often expressed in articles that seemed copy-pasted from each other, gave the signal that diplomatic relations would be normalized in short order.
That campaign hypocritically placed Regeni at the center of Italy’s national interests: The resumption of diplomatic relations, they said, would favor the search for the truth. Yet now we know, three months after the decision to send the ambassador back to Egypt and two months after his return there, exactly how well things are going. Talks have resumed about everything (tourism, immigration, terrorism, economic relations) except Regeni.
The human rights situation in Cairo has further deteriorated, with the disappearance of the lawyer Ibrahim Metwally, the attempts to shut down the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, and, most recently, the upholding of the five-year prison sentence for the revolutionary activist Alaa Abdel Fattah.
Meanwhile, a procedurally mandated international letter rogatory for obtaining information useful for the investigations of the district attorney in Rome has become the pretext for the resumption of the latent campaign against “treacherous Cambridge.”
“Do they have something to hide?” tweeted Renzi, from whom we have not seen in 22 months any similar tweet asking if those in Cairo could possibly have something to hide. In the Egyptian capital, the theory of a Muslim Brotherhood-Cambridge-Regeni connection has taken on new life, while in the Italian capital the “Cambridge lead” has given new energy to conspiracy theories. If they can’t put the blame on Egypt, there’s always a Cambridge at which they can point the finger.
On Monday, coming to the end of the second month after the Italian ambassador’s return to Cairo, Amnesty International has again asked the government what “steps forward,” guaranteed by Minister Alfano himself in the heat of August when he announced the full resumption of diplomatic relations between Italy and Egypt, have been made, and what results have been obtained in the search for truth for Regeni.
We also asked what happened to the professional staff that was to accompany the ambassador for investigations, of which there is no trace in official documents or in interviews with the representatives of our government. Finally, we asked what response has been given to the arrogant convening of our ambassador and those of four others countries, said to be guilty of “unacceptable interference,” which meant expressing concern at the continued arrest of Metwally.
If he ever truly and honestly was an object of the “national interest” from the point of view of the Italian institutions, Regeni is no longer. He remains — and this is not a small thing — in the interest of the countless people demanding the truth. Or rather demanding that the historical and political truth that we already know, and which led us to immediately call his murder a “state assassination,” be acknowledged also by the Egyptian authorities.
All those people certainly think that demanding the truth for an Italian citizen who was victim of a murder by a foreign state is precisely in the national interest. I cannot say if Regeni’s death in fact brought “honor” to all of Italy — but it did bring horror, without a doubt.
Riccardo Noury is spokesman for Amnesty Italy.