The most recent European Union resolution has effectively condemned Egyptian security forces for the murder of Italian PhD student, Giulio Regeni. The young Cambridge scholar was forcibly disappeared and killed while conducting research on independent trade unions in Egypt. Despite signs of torture, including pulled nails and cigarette burns on his body, Egyptian officials claimed it was a roadside accident.
The EU resolution is non-binding, meaning that European governments may continue to support more human rights abuses if they choose, since the recommendations may not be enforced.
Regeni’s affair isn’t an isolated incident. The young Italian scholar’s murder is a symptom of systemic brutality on the part of the Egyptian regime, yet it also does not exactly come as a surprise, after eight Mexican tourists were killed by a country’s security forces and the perpetrators have gone unpunished.
Regeni’s case mimics that of Mohamed Al-Gendy, a young activist who criticised the Minister of Interior for employing violence in service to Morsi’s rule. Three years ago, around the time of the anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, Al-Gendy was kidnapped and taken to a police camp where he was tortured and dumped. Egyptian authorities also described it as a roadside accident, despite cigarette burns on his tongue. His body was release only after mounting pressure through protests by his friends.
Also around this same time last year, Egyptian police shot and murdered young activist Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh on the street in downtown, 100 metres from Tahrir Square. She was laying down a wreath of flowers in memory of those martyred during the revolution. Her murder sparked uproar as it was captured on video.
Al-Gendy and Regeni are both examples of cases that were resolved with a relative degree of certainty – at least their families know where their bodies are. Meanwhile, hundreds of families are still in search for their loved ones who have been missing or forcibly disappeared. In the time between these incidents, regime crimes have only gotten worse. Instead of changing their ways when pressured, they offered more lies. There may be hundreds, or even thousands, who have ended up tortured or dead with only the authorities knowing where they are presently buried. Several entities documented cases of enforced disappearances, such as the Freedom to the Brave campaign, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom (ECRF) and the El Nadeem Centre.
Egyptian NGO the El Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence reported 464 cases of enforced disappearances in 2015. According to El Nadeem, 500 people were reported to have been killed at the hands of security, 137 of whom died in detention. Nearly 700 people are reported to have been tortured.
Despite the rigorous documentation of enforced disappearances, Egyptian authorities are adamant that they do not exist. There are some cases where security agencies have detained individuals in the presence of their families and then denied knowledge of their whereabouts. Some, like Ashraf Shehata, have been forcibly disappeared for over two years. Even those whose whereabouts are known can very easily die in police stations, such as the infamous Matariya police station, where 14 people died of torture in 2014 and 2015.
The tragedy in Egypt is that those subjected to injustices have nowhere to turn. The judiciary serves a politicised agenda of punishing regime dissidents rather than upholding justice. Abuses are deliberately and systematically executed by personnel working for state institutions, and each state institution has a role covering up for the other. The judiciary has often acquitted officers implicated in violent activity. Forensics have also helped cover up police crimes.
The police’s focus appears to be on serving the regime, rather than upholding the law. The police are driven by a revenge agenda against youth that called for the 25 January Revolution, which diminished their powers and put police practices under scrutiny for some time. A senior police officer investigating Regeni’s case is reported to have a prior conviction for torturing a man to death and forging a police report.
Examples of how lawless the Egyptian police have become are endless; a low ranking police officer assaulting a doctor for refusing to falsify a hospital report was not held accountable, leading to calls for doctors to strike; low ranking officers were released early January after raping a woman at a checkpoint; incidents of policemen killing civilians without valid provocation are widespread. Al-Sisi declared 2016 the “year of youth”, yet even as the social media campaign to find Regeni was underway, Egyptian authorities were kidnapping 20 young people and torturing them. Earlier in January, a 14 year old high school student named Asser Zahreddine was forcibly disappeared as well.
The Al-Sisi regime’s prisons are filled to the brim with many randomly arrested individuals, activists and dissidents. A 20-year-old student has spent more than two years in jail for wearing an anti-torture t-shirt. Amnesty International described his case as “another appalling example of the ruthless and repressive tactics Egypt is resorting to in a bid to crush dissent”.
The press has also been targeted – there are 27 journalists in prison and 15 others under threat of imprisonment, according to the Press Syndicate in Egypt.
Five years after the removal of the former president Mubarak from power during the “Arab Spring”, the military that saved his regime from collapse still rules. Activists who helped raise awareness of the corruption and brutality of Mubarak’s rule are either killed, locked up, harassed constantly by security services or forcibly disappeared.
The new regime’s brutality is galvanising an unprecedented number of young people into activism against repressive measures, yet they are targeted all too easily. In the past, police brutality was more subtle, less apparent, employed when necessary while allowing other bureaucratic institutions to manage the details of everyday governance, but under Al-Sisi, police brutality is at the forefront, managing all aspects of ministries, politics, repression and opposition.
On the foreign front, countries that claim to support democracies do not put such practices under question, but rather lend the oppressor a helping hand by supplying them with arms, business opportunities and international recognition. These countries include Britain, France and the US, which maintains Egypt as its second largest recipient of military aid. Italy’s ties to Egypt have not yet been affected by rights abuses. Holland in particular has offered considerable support and many of its EU members voted against the EU resolution on Egypt.
International governments continue to support the present regime like they have with Mubarak, yet abuses against foreign nationals have become increasingly common, not to mention the thousands of Egyptians not reported in international media outlets.
This is not the first time foreign nationals have been targeted. In September 2013 a Frenchman died in police custody. More recently, another harrowing story of rights abuses emerged of an Italian national who was detained for 27 days by Egyptian authorities before returning to Italy. The young Italian, who preferred to remain anonymous, was prompted to write his testimony following news of the murder and torture of Regeni.
Sadly, the EU resolution on Egypt highlights the triumph of interests over humanity; a willingness to acknowledge brutality performed on Egypt’s soil with an obvious reluctance to do anything meaningful to address it beyond rhetoric.
The Al-Sisi regime has expanded measures of repression outside its own legal framework. Crimes against humanity, such as torture and enforced disappearances, are now commonplace. Until it becomes costly for the Egyptian regime to torture, kill, rape and imprison scores of innocent people, more people like Regeni will pay the price and, inevitably, hundreds of other forcibly disappeared Egyptians will turn up dead.