Egypt’s Arab Spring reverts to a winter of fear and torture

The horrific death of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student, has turned the spotlight back on the state’s brutality

When Egypt makes headlines these days, it’s usually for the same reasons as Syria and Iraq. Terrorist attacks by Islamic State (Isis) have not been so numerous in Egypt, but the destruction of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai peninsula, probably by a bomb, dominated the news last autumn. What gets less attention is a state of internal repression at least as relentless – some say worse – than the bad old days of President Hosni Mubarak.

The death of an Italian student, whose battered body was discovered in Cairo on Wednesday night, should challenge that habit of looking the other way. There is no doubt that Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old PhD student at Cambridge University, died a lonely and horrible death. Regeni went missing on his way to a birthday party in the centre of the city almost two weeks ago and his body was eventually found in a ditch in the suburbs. 

A senior police officer tried to suggest that he’d been killed in a car accident, but marks on Regeni’s body, including what appeared to be cigarette burns, are consistent with torture. The student had cuts to his ears, appeared to have been beaten and was naked from the waist down, according to local reports. The Egyptian prosecutor in charge of the investigation said he suffered “a slow death”, an observation that has led to speculation that his killer or killers were trying to extract information. 

The student’s research on Egyptian trade unions following the Arab Spring sounds inoffensive, but it could have put him in contact with opponents of the present government, which has cracked down on just about every strand of civil society. Even before Regeni’s murder, an Egyptian post-graduate student told me recently that he might have to change the subject of his PhD just to remain safe. But it emerged on Thursday that Regeni also freelanced for the Italian communist paper Il Manifesto, writing under a pseudonym to protect himself. Now that it appears he was murdered, there are fears for the safety of activists with whom he might have been in touch. 

While the possibility of a robbery or a botched kidnapping has yet to be ruled out, critics of the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi point out that what happened to Regeni is far from unusual. Sisi is a former head of the army who overthrew his predecessor, President Mohamed Morsi, in a military coup in 2013. He won a huge majority in the following year’s presidential election, but the government has remained jumpy, especially in the run-up to the anniversary of the popular uprising on 25 January 2011 that forced Mubarak out. That was the evening Regeni disappeared, amid a huge police presence in Cairo.

Three days later, an Egyptian news website claimed that police had arrested dozens of Egyptians and foreigners in Giza during an operation against “fugitives and violators”. What happens to individuals caught up in such round-ups has been widely documented by organisations such as Human Rights Watch and indigenous Egyptian groups that collect testimony about torture, beatings and other abuses. 

In December, only weeks before Regeni was abducted, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) published a timely and shocking report on enforced disappearances. After talking to victims, families and lawyers, it documented 340 cases in a three-month period between August and November last year, with an average of three per day. 

Victims who were later released described undergoing various types of torture including electric shocks, hanging by the hands and threats of sexual assault. 

The ECRF says that the blame for this litany of human rights abuses lies squarely with the Egyptian government, accusing it of allowing state security officers to torture people with impunity. Sisi’s administration says it is trying to find and arrest terrorists who threaten the security of the state, but many of the people affected have nothing to do with IS or the banned Muslim Brotherhood. 

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy in Washington, has pointed to unanimous agreement among NGOs that levels of repression “are extraordinarily high and perhaps even unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history”. He writes that, far from being targeted on Islamists, repression is directed against “all actors and political forces who directly challenge the regime and its interests, including those young, secular revolutionaries who we once saw… as the future of a new Egypt”.

This represents a dreadful reversal for the high hopes created by the daily demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that toppled Mubarak. It also suggest that Egypt’s Western allies are making the same mistake as they did with other hard-line leaders in the Middle East, putting up with appalling levels of state-sanctioned abuse in the name of “stability”. During a visit to Cairo last summer, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, warned that human rights abuses could undermine the fight against terrorism. That was just days after Washington announced it would deliver eight F-16 fighter planes to the Egyptian air force as part of a $1.3bn plan to revamp the country’s military capability.

A preliminary post-mortem report has established that Regeni died from bleeding to the brain following blows to the head, a finding that does nothing to clear up the mystery around his disappearance. The death of a clever and personable young man is a tragedy for his friends and family, but it has a political dimension which can’t be ignored. Suspicions about the role of the security services are a testament to the atmosphere of fear and anxiety that haunts civil society in Egypt, five years after everything was supposed to get better. 

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