The death in Egypt of the Italian student Giulio Regeni — a PhD. candidate at Cambridge University — earlier this year shocked the world. The brutality with which Mr Regeni was relentlessly tortured and beaten before being killed and dumped on a road, left little doubts about an involvement of Egypt’s own security forces.
However, despite the lack of clarity in the ongoing investigations, the attention of Western officials has crystallised on a much broader problem: the fear that escalating political repression and human rights abuses in Egypt are signs of weakness in President Sisi’s grip on power, potentially threatening the stability of a key Middle Eastern ally. The ‘Regeni case’, thus needs to be located in a complex geopolitical scenario, where Egypt’s political developments will have huge repercussions on the stability of the region, possibly affecting the rest of the world.
From the burst of the Arab Spring in January 2011 up to today, Egypt has in fact been anything but a stable country. After the revolution against President Mubarak — the dictator who ruled the country for almost 40 years — the Muslim Brotherhood took power, electing to presidency the Islamist Mohammed Morsi in 2012. Yet, Morsi's government encountered fierce opposition from secularists and members of the military, which resulted in a coup d’état led by now President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came into power in 2014 and soon reintroduced a nationalist authoritarian regime, only three years after the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo.
Since the military’s takeover in July 2013, Egypt has thus been characterised by the denial of basic human and political rights, with more than 500 people — including Giulio Regeni — disappearing, and with several protesters and social activists being jailed and prosecuted without a fair trial. Such violent repression carried out by internal security forces, as well as the denial of any sort of liberty and the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood have further alienated a population already marked by the 40 years of President Mubarak’s dictatorship, creating deep cleavages between the regime and the oppressed. As the protests that burst out in the last days showed, the level of oppression that Egyptian citizens will bear is not unlimited, if the regime doesn’t show to be reasonable in its limitations to freedom it won’t take long before Mr Sisi will lose control over the population resulting in the umpteenth government change in the last 5 years.
The death of a young researcher has been minimised in order to preserve Mr Sisi’s legitimacy and aid against the spread of Terrorism
An equal threat to the stability of Egypt’s political apparatus is posed by the increasing presence of terrorist organisations in the region, especially in the Sinai Peninsula where the Islamic State-affiliated Sinai Province (SP) terrorist group operates. Due to the Suez Canal’s importance for global trade and its significance to Egypt’s economic security, it has become a core target of terrorist organisations. If an attack on the Suez Canal were to be successful — despite a multi-billion dollar investment in its expansion — the results of such strike would have a catastrophic impact on the regime, causing enough chaos to overthrow Mr Sisi.
To this already precarious puzzle, we must add the problematic relationship between demographic and economic growth in the country. Egypt currently has a per-capita income of about $3,500 and is growing only about 3 percent a year, far too slow to satisfy the needs of its 82 million people. Once again, such figures combined with the political repression, make it hard to believe that the status quo will uphold in the near future if the government does not find an efficient way to boost the economy and distribute profits fairly.
Given the several challenges highlighted above, the reasons behind the reluctance of the Western nations— and especially of the EU— in having a fierce stance against Egypt in the ‘Regeni case’ appear clearer. Looking at the facts with a bit of cynicism, it is evident that Egypt is right now facing several issues and that if strong foreign pressure was to be exercised against Egypt’s political apparatus the regime would quickly tumble down, with Islamist forces quickly regaining power. The West today cannot let the entire Maghreb fall in the hands of Islamist parties because of the threats it would pose on the security of the Mediterranean and in turn on the entire EU. Therefore, the death of a young researcher has been minimised in order to preserve Mr Sisi’s legitimacy and aid against the spread of Terrorism. Giulio’s mom won’t ever see him again and we will never read his doctoral research on Egypt’s trade unions, but no one cares because we are supposedly safer with a dictator just few kilometres away from Europe’s southern borders than with a brilliant student on our side.
The question then appears quite simple; can we, as Europeans, as humans, forget the death of a student, one of us, in the name of the most ruthless cynicism? The answer for me and for other 60 million of Giulio’s compatriots is quite clear, it’s a NO as big as the hope we preserve in our inner soul for a better future for any human being in this world. TMM