Day 6

Were Egyptian security forces responsible for Italian grad student Giulio Regeni's death?

​Thousands of academics are calling for an inquiry into the tragic death of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni. His body was found bearing signs of torture on February 2. Brent talks to Egyptian professor Khaled Fahmy, who believes Regeni's murder is connected to a growing crackdown on academic freedom in Egypt.
Mourners at a vigil for slain Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, in front of the Italian embassy in Cairo, Egypt. (Amr Nabil/Associated Press)

On the fifth anniversary of Egypt's Arab Spring revolution, Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni went for a walk near Cairo's Tahrir Square — and disappeared. Regeni had been researching labour unrest in post-Mubarak Egypt as a visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo. On February 2, the his body was found in a ditch outside the city, half-naked and bearing the signs of brutal torture.

The circumstances around Regeni's death have raised suspicion that Egypt's security forces could be responsible — allegations that Egypt's foreign minister flatly rejected this week. But universities are a growing target in the state's crackdown on political dissent. And those who are not afraid to speak out say the situation is getting worse.

Brent speaks with Dr. Khaled Fahmy, a professor of History at the American University in Cairo, about Regeni's death and the state of academic freedom in Egypt.

This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Brent Bambury: Giulio Regeni was a student at American University in Cairo, where you teach. How did you react when you heard the news of his death?

Khaled Fahmy: I was horrified; I was shocked. The brutality of the case, and the horrific nature of the torture that he was subjected to, is sending the creeps through all of us. Me and my colleagues in Cambridge — his supervisor is a friend of mine — but also my colleagues in the American University in Cairo.

BB: The investigation into Mr Regeni's death is ongoing, but the autopsy does point to torture. Were there details in that report to suggest that the Egyptian security forces were responsible for this?

KF: Well, there are two autopsy reports, and there are some very interesting discrepancies between them. There is one that was conducted in Cairo, and another one that was conducted in Italy after the body had been repatriated.

Both document extensive torture — on the body, on the face. A broken neck. A broken skull. Slit ears; cigarette burn marks on the body. But the interesting discrepancy is the one that is included in the Italian autopsy report and omitted in the Egyptian one. And it has to do with fingernails. All his finger and toenails have been extracted.

Now, this is a sign not only of torture; but torture to extract a confession. This is something that an intelligence service would do; not a terrorist organization. And it's interesting that this was omitted in the Egyptian report.

BB: Mr Regeni's research was fairly politically subversive. Did he have reason to believe it would be dangerous to go to Tahrir Square on the fifth anniversary of the uprising?

KF: Yes. But from all we know, he was very careful, and he did not go to conduct any research. All indications point out that if this was the act of the police — which we still don't know — it is very unlikely that this was based on the kind of research that he was doing.

The most likely scenario is that he went to Tahrir unsuspecting, and he was arrested; because the police were arresting everybody that day. And in police custody it was discovered that he is a foreigner who speaks Arabic fluently, and that he conducts research on a sensitive topic. So it was not premeditated. And when they discovered this in police custody, they got suspicious of him. Which is, again, the default position of Egyptian security forces — to be suspicious of all foreigners who are conducting research in Egypt.

And this is a sensitive topic, so they started interrogating him forcefully. That's the most likely scenario.

BB: The suppression of academics and students has been going on for a long time in Egypt; it predates the uprising of five years ago. Why are academics and students still seen as a threat to Egyptian authorities?

KF: Well, students on campuses are seen as a threat because they can organize. But as far as researchers and the production of information is concerned, the Egyptian state is not the police state the way the Iraqi state was, or the Syrian state was. It is a police state in the sense that it is very concerned about the dissemination of information.

At the core of the regime is a security mentality that sees the production of knowledge and the dissemination of information to be a deeply suspicious activity. And the Egyptian authorities are very concerned about the production of information about Egypt by foreigners.

BB: We've seen an outcry from international academics over Mr. Regeni's death. What do you make of the response from American University, where you're a professor? Were you satisfied with that?

KF: No, not at all. It's a sham. The American University in Cairo issued a tweet saying that they pass on their condolences to the family of Mr Regeni, who passed away recently. Nothing about the brutal way in which he was killed; nothing about expecting or demanding an explanation — let alone accountability for his death.

The whole case sends a really serious signal to the conditions of conducting research in Egypt. This is a game-changer, by all means; it will now be very difficult for funding agencies to be able to fund their students to go and conduct research in Egypt.

BB: But if Egypt becomes isolated from other academic institutions as a result of Mr. Regeni's death, haven't the security forces achieved their goals?

KF: Of course they have. And the Egyptian security forces are not stupid. The Egyptian security forces have been conducting a reign of terror to terrorize the population into submission. And it has worked. People are terrified; they are leaving the country in droves. The human rights organizations are closing down; civil society organizations are closing down. Many journalists are leaving. And now we're seeing academics being targeted.

BB: You just painted a dire picture: A reign of terror; a domestic population under severe restraint. Is that sustainable? Can authorities continue to repress people in Egypt without the people pushing back?

KF: I personally don't believe so; I think this is untenable. And this is why I am very concerned. This regime is undermining the long-term stability of the country, precisely by forcing — inadvertently — millions of people to lose confidence in the institutions of the state.

The consequences of that, in the midst of a dire economic situation and a very turbulent region, is for people to take the law in their hands and to express their economic and political frustration on the streets.

And if we see an outpouring of people in the streets, it will not be the peaceful one we saw in 2011. It will be much more serious. And Egypt is much bigger and much more complicated than Syria. If Europe — and Canada — are feeling the repercussions of the waves and waves of migrants out of Syria, just imagine how much more complex the case would be if Egypt, God forbid, collapses.

BB: Dr. Fahmy, you are visiting professor at Harvard University. What are you saying to students under your supervision who want to conduct research in Egypt?

KF:  This is a very difficult question. But now, in all honesty — it breaks my heart saying this — I cannot advise students to go to Egypt.

Cambridge University would not comment on whether it plans to review its policies around sending students to Egypt. Canadian universities say they will continue to assess student travel on a case-by-case basis.