US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has become the latest in long line of world leaders queuing up to meet Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi. Whilst Clinton will meet the military strongman at the UN General Assembly next week, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball said he would be welcome to visit Australia. At the beginning of September Al-Sisi visited India where he met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss collective action on radicalisation and recruitment.
Whilst Al-Sisi zips across the globe to shake hands with world leaders, onlookers may be fooled by their business as usual attitude, which is in danger of obscuring – and sweeps under the carpet – three years of human rights abuses handed out by the regime and institutions which work closely with the state. Rather than getting better, abuses in Egypt are escalating – a recent report by the Arabic Network for Human Rights revealed that 60,000 of Egypt’s 106,000 prisoners are political. In fact, since the 2013 coup, Al-Sisi has built 13 more prisons just to make space for them.
For those who have long been disillusioned with who politicians befriend, the mammoth number of political prisoners languishing behind bars in Egypt is not fresh news, neither is the torture, sexual abuse and denial of medical care they are subject to when inside. For many, it was the horrific ordeal suffered by Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni that helped turn the international spotlight onto these abuses. As a result of the publicity his case received, Regeni has come to symbolise the plight of thousands of Egyptians and several Europeans who have been unlucky enough to ge caught up in Al-Sisi’s dragnet, which has targeted anyone that opposes him.
Regeni was abducted in Egypt on 25 January this year, the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution. Egyptian authorities have maintained that it was a criminal gang later killed in a shoot-out who was responsible for his death but his body bore the familiar hallmarks of torture regularly carried out by Egyptian authorities. Regeni’s mother, who visited her son’s corpse at the morgue, said that her son had been so badly tortured she was only able to identify him by the tip of his nose.
Since his body was discovered, Regeni’s family have campaigned tirelessly to uncover the truth about what happened in those late January days. It should be our leaders – who in the UK at least are obsessed with adherence to the “British values”’ of democracy, the rule of law and individual liberty – who are pushing the case for Egypt to face justice over the killing of a student and the disappearance of thousands. But they are too busy rubbing shoulders with the president responsible and have left all the hard work to Regeni’s mother.
After months of heel-dragging by Egypt and a failure to give answers over what happened, a series of events have unfolded over the last week which indicate there might finally be some progress into Regeni’s case. It began when the head of the Independent Street Vendors Union Mohamed Abdallah admitted at the weekend it was him who reported Regeni to the police after he was “sceptical” of Regeni’s “illogical” questions. Regeni was in Cairo to research independent trade unions and was writing for an Italian publication, which took a critical stance towards the Egyptian government.
With this information out in the open, Egyptian prosecutor Nabil Sadeck admitted for the first time that Regeni was investigated by police in the weeks leading up to his disappearance. The police say they dropped their investigation into Regeni and his work after three days.
Finally, last Saturday, Ahmed Abdallah, director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms and legal consultant for the Regeni family, was released. Abdallah had been arrested at his home in New Cairo in April. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa shortly after his release, Abdallah revealed he was told that his association with Regeni made him a dangerous person. Despite this, Abdallah has said he will continue to ask questions about Regeni’s abduction and murder because “he is one of us”.
Perhaps Al-Sisi thought that releasing Abdallah and offering up the head of the street vendors union would take the heat off him, or the senior figure within the army or intelligence who gave the go ahead for Regeni’s torture, in what has been a very international and public case. Whilst progress is welcome, particularly Abdallah’s release, the fact remains that neither Al-Sisi, nor anyone within the military or the police, has taken responsibility for Regeni’s death.
Because world leaders have largely failed to take a stand on Egypt’s human rights abuses, in the days following the discovery of Regeni’s body it was a big deal when Italy – one of Egypt’s largest trading partners and an ally in the war on terror – was forced to re-examine its relationship with Egypt and withdraw its ambassador from Cairo.
But at the beginning of this month, as part of a joint effort with Italian senator and president of the human rights commission in the Italian Senate Luigi Monconi and Amnesty Italy, Regeni’s parents launched another online petition, this time to prevent a new ambassador from being sent to Egypt and the two countries restoring full diplomatic relations. This suggests that without pressure from Regeni’s parents, the Italian ambassador may be back in Egypt and Regeni’s home country would join the list of states offering international legitimacy to Al-Sisi’s government.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.