The murder of Giulio Regeni threw unexpected and unwelcome light on the Egyptian government. Not a single story proposed by senior government figures to explain how the young Italian researcher came to be tortured to death has proved the least bit convincing. Neither an automobile collision or a night of rough sex leave a victim whose body shows evidence of having suffered electric shock to the genitals, cigarette burns, and a broken neck. The most recent explanation proferred by the government is that he was kidnapped by a gang specializing in the abduction and robbery of foreigners. The police say they killed all the members of the gang in a shoot-out but were able to obtain Regeni’s identification papers (which the gang conveniently retained) as well as his cash (which they equally conveniently neglected to spend).
For now everything is speculative but the marks of torture on his body and the obstinacy with which the Egyptian government has resisted the entreaties of Regeni’s family and the Italian government for a joint investigation strongly suggest he was killed by Egyptian security agents.
One of the most puzzling aspects of Regeni’s murder is understanding why the Egyptian government would have wanted him dead or even why they would have tortured him. One commonly held theory in Cairo and beyond is based on the suspicion of Egyptian security agencies that foreigners are agitators. Thus they believe that the uprising of 2011 was the result of external interference rather than popular initiative. They therefore saw Regeni not as a researcher but as an activist and he was deliberately retained after he attended a gathering of independent trade union activists. Regeni, in this reading of events, was not unlike the American and German resident employees of organizations that funded civil society associations who were formally accused of being foreign agents in 2011. If this were the belief of high government officials then it would have been easy to deal with Regeni: either by revoking his visa or an unofficial warning that he would be indicted if he did not leave the country promptly.
Another theory is that he was simply unlucky. He took the subway from a stop near a meeting with union activists to Tahrir Square to visit a friend on January 25, the anniversary of the start of the 2011 uprising. He never arrived. The government had put a massive police presence in place as well as undertaking widespread arrests. Regeni, in this scenario, was an accidental victim. If this were the case, however, it is hard to fathom both why he was not let go and why the government has had such trouble finding the guilty police agent. To appease public anger the government had no trouble arresting and trying Mustafa Feto, a police officer who shot a Mohammad Adel, cab driver in the lower-class neighborhood of Darb al-Ahmar, after an altercation over a fare. Not quite two months passed before Feto was sentenced to life in prison. Even if it proved impossible to discover who had killed Regeni it would seem to be as easy to appease the anger of the Italian government by bringing a sacrificial police lamb to trial as by the deaths of five suspected criminals.
Seen in this light Regeni’s fate resembles that of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, young Americans who were killed in Chile in the days after the Pinochet regime came to power by overthrowing President Salvador Allende. Horman and Teruggi, however, were not picked up on the streets. The were arrested by the authorities in their homes and executed along with Chilean opponents of the junta when its hold on power was still uncertain. Most chillingly we now know for certain that US officials knew of and may have encouraged their arrests because they also saw these young men as enemies of the Chilean military and US policy. This is certainly not true of Italian military or diplomatic officials in Egypt.
How, then it might well be asked, do such obscure and enigmatic events throw light on the nature of the current situation in Egypt? One answer to that question is to suggest a slightly different scenario, elements of which certainly have circulated in Cairo. This suggestion is not for the purpose of telling the true story of what happened but of illustrating the institutional balance of forces within the current regime. In regard to Regeni we are truly situated in the world of Akira Kurosawa’s famous film “Rashomon.” The deeper truth of the movie is not that there can be different accounts of a single event but that, for this is how Kurosawa deliberately made the movie, we cannot construct out of those different narratives a single coherent "true" account. We may never know what really happened to Regeni but it nevertheless illuminates the complexity and fragility of contemporary Egypt. If we accept that the Egyptian government and particularly its security agencies fear that foreigners are outside agitators and that Regeni was stopped and taken more or less at random and taken into custody what does that tell us?
Authoritarian regimes are invariably anxious about conspiracies whose origins they impute to foreign machinations. Insofar as dictators claim to represent an inherently united class, nation, race or religion the existence of opposition can only arise from the temptations posed by outsiders who threaten the moral integrity of the community. It is easy to ridicule such fears as intellectually feeble excuses for repression and the settling of political scores. It is less easy to see that paranoia and xenophobia can be crippling. It is, however, giving the police in such regimes far too much credit to believe that they have independent and infallible ways to determine who the regime’s enemies are. They rely on many sources of information: paid informers, complaints, and denunciations. To say that these sources are reliable or objective would be ridiculous. Informers inform for their own reasons which may have little to do with the objective truth of the information they provide to authorities. Using the government’s anxiety and enmity as a tool to rid oneself of enemies real or imagined is probably as old as government itself.
Immediately after the coup in 2013, Egyptians turned on each other. Accusations of membership in the banned Muslim Brotherhood or in terrorist cells mushroomed in a society in which conspiracy theories had been nurtured by government officials for decades. The government arrested well-known leaders of the Muslim Brothers for political reasons, but tens of thousands of other Egyptians were arrested by local authorities. Some of these arrests and subsequent trials became notorious due to the summary death sentences imposed on defendants in mass trials. Other arrests and convictions of well-known activists have merited intermittent treatment in the international press.
All these accounts of arrests and trials suggest that Egypt has a unified government that knows what it is doing: limiting the political activity of the opposition, frightening the population at large, reinforcing the power of the dictatorship by targeting a variety of regime opponents. What it is doing may be wrong, unpalatable and destructive, but at least the government has a clear authoritarian vision of subduing the population. The public trial of Al-Jazeera correspondents and the arrest of Egyptian reporters are all designed to curtail access to information. The pitiful spectacle of Esraa al-Taweel, a young woman on crutches weeping at a hearing reinforced the sense of weakness and impotence of the movement to which she belonged. The killing of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh at a demonstration where she sought to lay flowers on the ground as well as the jailing of Mohammad Soltan, the son of a Muslim Brotherhood leader and an American citizen, or the deaths of countless others were all designed to re-build the wall of fear that surrounded Egyptians since the days of Nasser.
There is no doubt that the Egyptian government is willing to use overwhelming and lethal force against its perceived enemies. In early July 2013 dozens of demonstrators were killed in front of the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo. Upwards of a thousand people were killed when the government dispersed demonstration/encampments at Rabaa Square in Cairo and Nahdet Misr Square in Giza. The government has also prosecuted foreigners such as Peter Greste, an Australian employee of Al-Jazeera news in the wake of the 2013 coup, for reporting without a license and aiding a terrorist organization.
Yet each of these events have contradictory elements. What if, instead of an all-seeing government we are actually witnessing a blind Moloch? Greste was held for more than a year along with co-defendants Mohammad Fahmy (a Canadian-Egyptian) and Baher Mohammad (an Egyptian). International pressure mounted heightening the embarrassment of the Egyptian government. The courts refused to end the trial until finding the defendants guilty. In the end the Egyptian government promulgated a law allowing President Sisi to deport foreigners such as Greste accused or convicted. This face-saving allowed Greste to leave the country. Fahmy and Mohammad were pardoned by Sisi shortly after their convictions. Soltan had been sentenced to life in prison but renounced his Egyptian citizenship and was later deported to the United States. The policeman who shot al-Sabbagh was later sentenced to 15 years in prison for assault (which suggests he will serve about one third of the sentence).
In short, the Sisi government not infrequently finds itself in embroiled in embarrassing situations or acts that provoke significant domestic anger or foreign scorn that it can neither contain nor repress. The most dramatic such event was the claim by the government in 2014 that it had discovered a cure for hepatitis C, a disease of epidemic proportions in Egypt. The bogus cure amounted to little more than metallic dowsing rods that swindlers in Iraq have also claimed can detect explosive devices under cars. The government has since silently retired both the apparatus and its inventor while moving to provide Egyptians with an effective medication developed in the US and hoping its mis-steps would be forgotten.
Regeni’s murder, however, will not be quickly forgotten nor can it be easily fobbed off with excuses. The inability of the Egyptian government to respond adequately to the demands of the Italian government, however, point to the contradictory nature of the case. Regeni’s murder has provoked anger and fear but it has also produced some bewilderment. Therefore, what events of the past two months suggest is a government struggling for control and troubled as much by conflict within the ruling coalition as between that coalition and society.
Assuming for the sake of argument that the Egyptian police believed Regeni was himself organizing political opposition to the regime, how would they have come to that belief? The police would have already given Regeni clearance for his research since all foreign academics submit such requests to obtain visas. Had they believed initially he was intending to agitate rather than research it is unlikely he would have received a visa. More plausibly someone among the people he studied was submitting reports to the police. When demonstrators entered the offices of the State Security Police in Cairo in March 2011, it became apparent just how detailed (and frequently inconsequential when viewed objectively) the level of reporting was and how many records were kept on many citizens.
There is no reason to believe that such reports in police states are any more accurate than accounts of miraculous cures or membership in banned organizations. False reports are submitted for many reasons: personal dislike, revenge, a desire to please superiors, simple malice, or even misunderstanding. I had good reason, when I was doing research on trade union history in Egypt in the 1980s, to believe that the government was receiving copies of my correspondence and that elderly union leaders were followed to (and probably from) interviews. The arrest and detention for over a year of Aya Hijazi, founder of the society Beladi that sought to provide aid to Cairene street children, seems to rely on false reports of trafficking and sexual abuse. Hijazi, an American citizen, has no known connection to Egyptian political groups of any kind and none of the allegations has held up under external investigation.
Even in liberal societies such secret police reports are difficult to refute because they are hidden under a veil of secrecy. In Egypt today and yesterday there is essentially no way to gain access to such reports and certainly no way to correct them. If Regeni was picked up on leaving the Cairo metro in a sweep by police officers who initially had no idea who he was, his file might have contained false or misleading accounts of his activity. If he was picked by police who already knew his identity, they might have been guided by the same kind of reports. Regeni however would not necessarily have had any idea why he was questioned about suspicious or illegal activity and would have had no answers for an increasingly brutal and inexplicable interrogation. Even readers of translated Egyptian fiction such as Karnak Café by the late Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz will be aware of the brutality of such interrogations and also of the casual way with the accuracy of the accusations interrogators had.
We may never know what exactly happened to Regeni in the days during which he was tortured to death. Even with the prodding of the Italian government, Egyptian authorities refused to release information about Regeni’s cellphone calls in his last hours of freedom or the video footage that might have been available from Metro cameras. Italian investigators claim that their Egyptian counterparts are stalling the investigation, which of course raises more suspicions.
Unlike deportations or the quick arrest and conviction of a known perpetrator the government has been unable to put Regeni’s death behind it. The belief that the government purposely arrested Regeni and now seeks to hide the fact gains credence with the fudged explanations and foot-dragging. More recently it has been proposed that no matter what happened to Regeni, President Sisi fears the police. He will, it has been asserted, require the police to protect him should another round of massive demonstrations threaten to sweep him from power.
The weakness of this account of the Regeni affair is that rarely, if ever, have the Egyptian police safeguarded an incumbent executive from mass demonstrations. For nearly a century when kings and presidents have faced massive upheaval it was the armed forces—not the police—that intervened to protect authority. In 1919 the British required armed columns and martial law to put down a revolutionary uprising; in 1952 martial law was again required after the burning of Cairo; in 1977 troops returned order after the government lost control of the streets during protests about the rising cost of food; in 1986 it was police units themselves rebelled and were put down by the Armed Forces; and in 2011 the police vanished leaving the army to take up positions in Cairo and Alexandria and ultimately to take direct control of the government.
By the time mass demonstrations engulf Egypt the police will be helpless. No matter how imperfect, corrupt and brutal, however, the police do manage to keep order in ways that the armed forces cannot in ordinary circumstances. The withdrawal of the police, their refusal at many points in the first three years of the uprising to enforce the law, encouraged criminality and simply increased disorganization on the streets in the first years of the uprising. The proliferation of street vendors, the illegal sale of land and construction, the occasional gunfights as criminals fought, as well as the proliferation of demonstrations were all the result of decreased police presence or the unwillingness of the police to enforce rules. The freedom to take to the streets or the ability to buy cheap goods on the sidewalk are not equivalent to violent criminal behavior or the theft of real estate. When the military took power in 2013 they promised to restore order and begin to solve the economic and social problems of the country. For this they need the police.
And yet the police have already threatened the new regime. There are routine accounts of conflicts, including the use of weapons, between police officers and army officers. These are, of course, isolated and individual confrontations but they suggest deep conflicts between the two security services about status and authority. Policemen have also engaged in demonstrations against the government’s salary policy in blatant violation of the law against unauthorized demonstrations.
The government needs the police because the armed forces can seize power but they cannot police the country. The police suffered a historic disaster in 2011 but now they have recovered. Thus even a military government that is on the defensive and embarrassed by the activities of the police cannot afford to look too deeply into what they do and how they do it because it cannot govern without them. This is not to suggest that the President, his government and the military high command are innocent victims of a police conspiracy. It is to say that they have attempted to rule a large, largely urban, and diverse country with tools that belong to a different generation and a different country—the Egypt of the mid-20th century—and that their grip on even those tools is weak. The most important tool of a police state, the police, are now operating with little or no oversight or self-restraint. Two months ago a policeman murdered a taxicab driver in a dispute over a fare; days ago another policeman killed a vendor in a dispute over the price of a glass of tea.
As my co-author, Hind Ahmed Zaki, and I argued in 2012 the uprising of 2011 made the issue of respect for the state and the legal system central concerns in Egypt. Our fear that the courts might begin to lose legitimacy has unfortunately been realized, but our greater fear was that the Egyptian state would be tempted to restore its authority (“haibat al-dawlah”) by force and that this would undermine the state and the very idea of the rule of law. We did not expect that police violence of an almost random nature would come to pass, but its effects may be devastating.
The 2011 uprising was in significant measure due to concern about police brutality and Regeni’s murder in 2016, on the anniversary of the events of 2011, showed just how significant the problem of reforming and controlling the security forces remains. The image of Khaled Said’s broken face shocked members of the urban middle class who could see themselves in it. There is every reason to believe that the image of Giulio Regeni would be, as his mother maintains, an equally powerful testament to torture and brutality on the part of the police. It has become common to say that Egypt today is more repressive than under Mubarak, but the events of the last six months suggest an even more disturbing possibility: the police are escaping from, or have already escaped from, control by Egypt’s political leadership. If President Sisi, his government, and the armed forces cannot bring themselves to bring the police under control it may indeed be that they fear them. They do not fear them for what might happen on the day after an uprising but because as Egyptians come to see them as simply a violent and corrupt gang, any hope of reversing the economic and political collapse of the last half decade will be utterly lost.