From Regeni to Zaky, the Failure of Italy’s Diplomacy
Federica Zoja 19 February 2020

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt is not a welcoming place for intellectuals, journalists, teachers, political opposition; in short, for freedom of expression.

The latest in a long line of arrests of human rights activists, the detention of 27-year-old Patrick George Michel Zaky Suleiman reinforces what the international community already knew but prefers to ignore for the sake of economic and strategic expediency.

The case of the young researcher, nevertheless, opens questions and unknowns on which it would behoove us to reflect, because in the long run, the consequences of political passivity of Cairo’s main partners could be weightier than expected.


The facts

In September 2019, Patrick George Zaky began a Master’s in Gender and Women Studies at the University Alma Mater of Bologna. It is a Master’s degree within the Erasmus Mundus circuit, which is selective in the students it accepts. Upon completing the first set of exams, Zaky decided to go back to Egypt to visit his family currently residing in Cairo, but originally from Mansoura in the Nile Delta.

Upon arriving at Cairo Airport on February 7th he was stopped by security agents; he was however able to reach his father before his phone was confiscated.

For over 24 hours there was no trace of Zaky until his family and lawyers located him in Mansoura city prison in pre-trial detention. The charges brought against him are those of inciting anti-government demonstrations, publishing false news on social media undermining public order and promoting the use of violence and damaging the image of the Nation.

After two days of pretrial custody he was allowed to meet with family and one lawyer for just a few minutes. Patrick asserted that he had been blindfolded for twelve hours, beaten and electrocuted for another seven in a way that would not result in burns on his body.

On the 15th of February, a judge in Mansoura, during a barely ten-minute hearing rejected a bail plea Zaky’s lawyers had laid out meaning he will remain in prison at least until the 22nd of February. In any case, it will be impossible for his defense team to present another plea for at least a month. During the hearing, Zaky recounted the abuse he had suffered. No justification was provided for reconfirming his pre-trial sentence, the law does not require it. During the lightning-fast hearing two diplomats, one Italian and another Swedish were allowed to assist as representatives for the European Union, as well as a colleague from the US and another from Canada. Outside the Mansoura courthouse some representatives from the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), for which Zaky had worked, waited in vain for his release.


Why him?

The researcher was not aware that he had ended up in the scope of the Egyptian secret service although some hints may have made him consider re-entering the country more stealthily.

According to Human Rights Watch following some anti-government demonstrations on the 21st of September 2019, prompted by videos by businessman Mohammed Ali, over 4,400 people were arrested: university professors, lawyers, intellectuals, journalists, and activists. Of these, at least 2,000 are still in prison by virtue of an anti-terrorism law that permits judges to extent pre-trial custody for two years.

Zaky was not in Egypt in September but did express himself openly against the president on his Facebook account. The young researcher was probably already under surveillance by Egyptian authorities for his collaboration with EIPR, one of the most recognized NGOs in Egypt dedicated to defending the rights of minorities, prisoners and women; in the last few months, 9 members of EIPR have been arrested and interrogated albeit released within 48 hours. Zaky also fought for rights for the Christian community in Norther Sinai, which had been displaced with the advance of Daesh jihadists in the region, as well as for the LGBT community typically discriminated against as well as criminalized in Egypt.

Now his lawyers are asking for access to the materials the police have collected against him: pro-government media refer to ten pages of Facebook posts, photos and recordings that attest also to his homosexuality (a crime in Egypt). A tableau that fill his family with fear and that has closed in on itself after its initial days of contact with the international press: there is the risk that Zaky, after years of custody, is handed a life-sentence. His legal team as well as his acquaintances suspect that the Egyptian security services have “wrapped” an ad hoc probative package against an uncomfortable young activist, who had also intervened in the Giulio Regeni case.


Giulio Regeni’s Long Shadow

The constitutional referendum held in Egypt in April 2019 laid the groundwork for President Al-Sisi to be reconfirmed in his post until 2030 and handed strategic power to the military: in fact, today virtually all types of demonstration are banned, while the independence of the judiciary has been seriously eroded and military forces monopolize the economy and other elements of the public sphere.

The effects are felt according to major local and international NGOs, whose activities have been impeded by a recently adopted law, which limits their scope of action. The number of political prisoners could reach over 60,000 (during Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship the number was estimated at around 40,000). Many of the detained were arrested and disappeared by the military secret service and we still do not know what has become of them. It will be nearly impossible to determine their fates as media outlets undergo regular checks, some being completely shut-down: independent sites, blogs and information platforms have been blacked-out by the hundreds (according to Human Rights Watch the number is over 600).

Notwithstanding, a young student that comes and goes from a European country bringing with him only his background in social sciences and democratic fervor scares the government, just as 28-year-old Italian, Giulio Regeni scared the government. It is not clear, as some Italian media outlets have claimed, whether Zaky stated to his lawyers that he was questioned repeatedly on his presumed ties with the Regeni family in Italy. Zaky’s parents have denied the claim and have attempted to trace their son’s case solely to the Egyptian context, which is already quite complex.

In Italian public opinion, in any case, the long shadow cast by an event as tragic as the murder of Regeni will not be easily erased and any new injustice will bring back the horror of that death.


The point of no-return 

Giulio Regeni’s tortured body was found – or left to be found – on the 3rd of February 2016 on the highway between Cairo and Alexandria. The researcher disappeared into thin air on the 25th of January 2016, the fifth anniversary of the 2011 popular revolt. He was a doctoral student in Social Sciences at Cambridge University and had been in Egypt since December 2015. He was researching independent trade unions in Egypt; a very delicate subject as it was the unions who acted as the hotbed of the 2011 revolution. The inquest led by the District Attorney’s Office in Rome was perpetually obstructed by Egyptian authorities through the use of red herrings and complicit silence. Nevertheless, they were able to reconstruct partial facts: a branch of the military secret service had been following Regeni since his arrival in Cairo, speculating that he was a member of an international spy ring. His kidnapping, interrogation, torture and finally death were authorized at the highest levels of the military. The Italian investigators were able to put in writing the names of the agents and officials involved, despite lacking complete cooperation on behalf of the Egyptians.

It is at this point in the story that irreparable damage was done. The Italian government did not respond adequately to the Egyptian “no”, forever compromising its authority in the Mediterranean basin if not in the world. The inability of Italy to employ political and economic levers to obtain justice is a precedent that will be hard to forget, effectively exposing every Italian in the world to the same fate as Giulio Regeni, if no one is held to account. The same is valid, to a degree, for the other European foreign offices, absent during a founding member’s moment of need.

The results are clear; everyday Al-Sisi’s regime persecutes its citizens, including those with dual nationality and those that have strong links abroad, like Zaky. The phenomenon is exacerbating relentlessly.

The case of Mustafa Kassem is brought to mind, an Egyptian citizen with a US passport, who was arrested in August 2013, during protests against the anti-Islamist military coup. He was held for five years before undergoing a trial and finally being sentenced. Kassem was part of a group of over 700 detainees, arrested in the context of the protests. A diabetic with heart problems, his family and lawyers reported that he never received adequate care and a month ago he died in prison. He was the subject of an international campaign, in which President Obama’s administration also became involved, all of which was futile.


The price of realpolitik

The argument adopted by a portion of Italian observers is, in sum, that Egypt is too important in terms of energy resources, politically and militarily to risk pushing it towards other alliances by irking its top dogs. Italy will have to withstand and hope that History swallow Giulio Regeni and the others.

There is a moment in which even realpolitik can, however, become counterproductive. In this case, it is the moment to ask oneself honestly whether it is really necessary to ignore a heinous murder of one’s own citizen to preserve commercial and political relations with a country with an uncertain destiny, in the hands of blind and paranoid totalitarianism. What if the bar were continuously raised?

The case of Patrick George Zaky gives us somewhat of an answer. Saturday the 15th of February, as mentioned earlier, four foreign diplomats observed the judicial hearing. They were permitted to assist in order to “quell” the reaction of Italian, European and American diplomacy on the news of the researcher’s arrest. However, Egyptian authorities have demonstrated to be unyielding towards dissenters: Zaky remains behind bars and the accusations of torture have largely been ignored, constantly being discredited with vehemence by the main pro-government newspapers.

The West’s barking does not seem to serve any purpose, not even to keep Cairo looking in its direction. Relations with Russia and China are the closest they have ever been, one just has to think of how Egypt has become a key block in the new Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. We now find ourselves back at the start: when an accomplished democracy is not able to defend its citizens neither dead nor alive, its authority and credibility is compromised in the numerous scenarios in which it could play a leading role. And economic outcomes follow. One is reminded of Libya, Iraq and wherever Italian interests and presence require a solid political infrastructure able to withstand even the most bitter disagreements with longstanding partners and to lead larger diplomatic efforts.

In the long-run, history demonstrates that if one plays the sheep, the wolf will not hesitate. And the Mediterranean does not seem to be lacking in wolves.


Photo: Filippo Monteforte / AFP

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