A prominent Italian journalist has returned his Legion of Honor to the French Embassy to protest the awarding of the prize to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during his protest-marred visit to Paris last week.
Corrado Augias, a longtime contributor to La Repubblica daily and onetime European Parliamentarian for Italy’s center-left, cited Egypt’s role in the 2016 kidnapping, torture and killing of an Italian doctoral research student in Cairo.
Rome prosecutors last week formally placed four high-ranking members of Egypt’s security forces under investigation over the death of Giulio Regeni, whose killing strained relations between Rome and Cairo and galvanized Italy's human rights community.
Augias said he returned his 2007 prize out of “a sense of indignation,” given that the award was bestowed on el-Sissi at the same time that Rome prosecutors were detailing the torture that Regeni suffered to a parliamentary committee.
“The two things together were too strong,” he told reporters outside the French Embassy. “I couldn't refrain from reacting."
El-Sissi’s state visit sparked protests by human rights activists incensed that French President Emmanuel Macron had rolled out the red carpet while el-Sissi presides over the heaviest crackdown on dissent in Egypt’s modern history. At the time, it wasn’t known that Macron had awarded el-Sissi the highest distinction of the Legion of Honor order of merit, the Grand-Croix, or Grand-Cross.
The award ceremony was held without the press before a Sept. 7 dinner at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris. The event was not listed on Macron’s official agenda, and images of the ceremony only emerged after they were published by the Egyptian presidency.
The French presidency said such a ceremony is usually part of the protocol during state visits.
The French ambassador to Italy, Christian Masset, said he respected Augias.
“France is on the front lines for human rights and makes no compromises,” he tweeted after Augias returned his prize. “Many cases were discussed during President el-Sissi’s visit to Paris, in the most appropriate and efficient way.”
The Legion of Honor has been given to French war heroes, writers, artists and businessmen. But it has also been given to leaders with questionable human rights records, including Syrian President Bashar Assad (though he returned it in 2018) and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During the visit, France and Egypt signed contracts for French development aid and hospital and transport cooperation.