Italy-Egypt relations threatened by murky Cairo murder | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 10.04.2016
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Italy-Egypt relations threatened by murky Cairo murder

Egyptian investigators are making no progress in the case of an Italian student murdered in Cairo. And they're not being very helpful to their counterparts in Rome, either, Megan Williams reports.

Leaders in Rome and Cairo are engaged in a diplomatic dance of subtle nudging, behind-the-scenes meetings, bold public demands and repeated promises of the truth as they navigate the political minefield in the wake of the mysterious murder of a young Italian in Egypt.

Giulio Regeni, a University of Cambridge doctoral student researching independent labor unions in Egypt, disappeared on January 25, the five-year anniversary of the uprising that ended the autocrat Hosni Mubarak's three decades in power - a day on which the streets of Cairo were flush with security personnel.

Nine days later, his half-naked and severely tortured body was discovered on the side of a highway leading out of the city.

Regeni's parents, human rights groups and EU politicians have made it clear that they believe Egypt's secret service responsible for his murder.

"We'll stop only once we get the truth," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Friday, adding "la vera verita": the real truth.

Officials in Egypt claim that they're doing everything they can to facilitate Renzi's search for said truth. However, the lack of results in Egypt's own investigation into Regeni's death has led to mounting frustration across Italy, where many believe that a cover-up is underway rather than a quest for truth.

Most recently, Egyptian officials refused a request from Italy for the numbers of mobile phone clients in the Cairo district where the 28-year-old had lived. And last week Egyptian investigators traveled to Rome for what became a two-day marathon session of closed-door meetings with their Italian counterparts. The Egyptians brought 2,000 pages of documents with them, but Italian prosecutors said key pieces of evidence were still missing Following the encounter, Renzi announced that he was recalling Italy's ambassador to Egypt for an "urgent evaluation."

Enzo Le Fevre Cervini, the director of research and cooperation at the Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities, says the recall marks a new phase in diplomatic relations between the countries.

"Some may consider this move as a bluff," Le Fevre Cervini says, "but in my opinion it's strong indication that something more could happen."

The fact that all of Italy's political parties back the move, he adds, allows the country to present a united front in its demands that Egypt stop stalling the investigation.

Italien vermisster Student Giulio Regeni in Ägypten

Regeni had been studying labor movements as part of his Ph.D. work in Cairo

'A great leader'

In a press conference after her son's body was returned to Italy, Paola Regeni said his face looked like it had had "all the evil of the world inflicted upon it." She added: "The only thing I recognized in Giulio was the tip of his nose."

An autopsy in Italy found that Regeni had been tortured at intervals of approximately 12 hours for several days. The various versions of what happened to Regeni floated by Egyptian authorities and media have only served to bolster suspicions of a cover-up in Cairo.

Initially, Egyptian police said Regeni had been hit by a car. Later, on March 25, Egypt's interior minister said the student had fallen victim to a gang that posed as police officers to kidnap foreigners. The minister reported that police had killed all four members of the gang - rendering their testimony impossible - but that officers had found Regeni's ID in the home of one member.

Observers say such cases of disappearance and torture are chillingly common in Egypt - at least for Egyptians. According to Amnesty International, 474 people were "disappeared" there in 2015, many likely held in secret prisons. In that same year, there were 1,676 cases of torture, 500 of which ended in death.

"It's clear from the level of violence exerted on Regeni [that it was] state-made torture," the Budapest Centre's Le Fevre Cervini says, adding that he has studied other cases of foreigners tortured in Egypt by intelligence operatives.

Le Fevre Cervini says agents may have targeted Regeni because they believed that his research on trade unions had put him in touch with anti-government activists.

The sluggish cooperation of Egyptian authorities has made the case a thorny one for Renzi. Since taking office two years ago, the prime minister has made a special effort to forge close ties with Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the general who ousted democratically elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in the 2013 coup, and then was voted Egypt's leader in 2014.

"Renzi called him a great leader, and the two were strategic partners in the Mediterranean to fight people smuggling and Islamic terrorism," says Steve Scherer, the Rome correspondent for the news agency Reuters. "This is a setback for Renzi, and it's something he's going have to handle very delicately."

The partnership has become strained by the breakdown of Libya's government. Italy has aligned itself with the United States and Britain in backing a political solution via the "national unity government"; Egypt wants the West instead to lend support to Libyan National Army headed by General Khalifa Haftar.

Italy's strong economic ties with Egypt - the hundreds of Italian companies with Egyptian contracts and the fresh deal between Egypt and Italy's state-controlled Eni energy company to extract gas in the sea off its coast - only raise the stakes.

But Scherer says that if the case is proving troublesome for Renzi, it is all the more so for el-Sissi.

"El-Sissi is having problems with his own administration - and that's a bigger issue," Scherer says. "[This case] reveals the ongoing fight between el-Sissi's security apparatus and the Interior Ministry."

In a front-page editorial in Egypt's largest state-run paper, Al-Ahram, Editor-in-Chief Mohammed Abdel-Hadi Allam wrote that "the naive stories about Regeni's death have hurt Egypt at home and abroad - and justified some to judge what is happening in Egypt now to be no different from what went on before the January 25 revolution."

As Italians and Egyptians continue to closely follow the case, many say it is unlikely that the full story of who is responsible for the atrocious murder of Giulio Regeni will ever be revealed.

At best, they say, they'll get something close to the truth. But not la vera verita.

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