On December 4, the Prosecutor General of Rome placed five members of the Egyptian police and the National Security Agency (NSA) on a list of suspects related to the abduction, torture, and murder of Giulio Regeni. Regeni was a Cambridge PhD candidate researching labor unions in Egypt. He disappeared on January 25, 2016 and was found dead on the side of the Cairo-Alexandria road on February 3. Before the list of suspects was announced, the Italian Chamber of Deputies unilaterally decided to cut ties with its Egyptian counterpart on November 29 until marked progress is made. Meanwhile, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Enzo Moavero Milanesi issued a warning on December 2 that the Italian government will consider escalation if Egypt does not begin judicial proceedings against the suspects by the end of 2018. The Egyptian government, despite President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s July 2018 promise to bring Regeni’s killers to justice, issued a statement rejecting Rome’s list of suspects and refused to question any member of the security apparatus—a request Italy has been making since December 2017.
The Regeni case provides some insight into the operation of the Egyptian security apparatus and its use of enforced disappearances against Egyptian citizens. According to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, between August 2016 and 2017 alone there were 378 cases of forced disappearances. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have detailed the use of systematic torture and fabricated cases by the NSA and police to solicit confessions or punish detainees. The Regeni case indicates that torture is the regime’s blanket response to perceived threats, regardless of their magnitude.
After first denying that Regeni had ever been under investigation, Egyptian Attorney General Nabil Sadeq stated in September 2016 that Regeni came to the attention of the Egyptian authorities in January 7 of that year after Mohammed Abdallah, an informant, reported him to the NSA as a suspected spy. Regeni was then placed under police surveillance for only a few days, at which point he was deemed not a threat to Egyptian national security. When he disappeared a few weeks later, officials claimed he was never detained or questioned. Yet CCTV footage shared with Italian investigators showing the Cairo metro station where Regeni was last seen had “gaps” in the recordings, suggesting footage had been tampered with around the time Regeni was abducted. A video later surfaced showing Mohammed Abdallah attempting to get money from Regeni, who repeatedly rejected his request; this appears to be the state’s clumsy attempt to entrap Regeni and paint him as a spy attempting to purchase information from Abdallah. Most tellingly, Regeni was found with horrific torture marks, a hallmark of the extrajudicial killing conducted by the Egyptian security forces. This torture seems to have lasted several days, according to his autopsy. This evidence directly contradicts the Egyptian government’s various explanations for his death, which ranged from a car accident or a violent spat with a gay lover, to abduction and murder by a criminal gang that the police claimed they subsequently killed in a shootout in March 2016.
The list of suspects provided by the Prosecutor General of Rome also provides some insight into the operation that led to Regeni’s death, indicating that such targeted methods are part of official state policy. Based on the ranks and positions of the suspects, it appears to have been a joint operation between the NSA and the police. This list includes two NSA officials, Major General Tarek Saber and Major Sherif Magdy, as well as three members of the Egyptian police forces: Colonel Hesham Helmy, Colonel Acer Kamal, and junior police officer Mahmoud Negm. Tarek Saber, now retired, was a senior security official in the NSA at the time of Regeni abduction, and Sherif Magdy is a mid-level official in the NSA who was in charge of the team following Regeni. At the time of the abduction, Colonel Hesham Helmy served at a police station in Cairo’s Dooki district, where Regeni lived, and Colonel Acer Kamal was head of a police department in charge of street works and discipline.
The ranks of these suspects, as determined by the Italian investigators, dispel the notion that Regeni was a victim of some rogue element within the police, or that the highest echelons of the security apparatus were unaware of the operation. The results of the Italian investigation are in line with the testimony of an anonymous official in the Obama administration, who stated there is “explosive proof that Egyptian security officials had abducted, tortured, and killed Regeni” and that “Egypt’s leadership was fully aware of the circumstances.”
The lengths taken by the regime to protect those named further suggests that the highest level of the security apparatus directed the abduction and torture of Regeni. After all, the regime is risking confrontation with important partners—Italy and the rest of the European Union—to protect these suspects. For example, 70 percent of Italian state owned energy firm Eni’s investments are in Egypt, particularly in offshore natural gas fields that Egypt is relying on to address its energy shortages.
The NSA chose not to deport or imprison Regeni, as they have done for other journalists and researchers working on sensitive issues. This approach would still have sent a clear signal, though perhaps not as strong, that the issue he was working on was subversive and off-limits. Rather, even though Regeni was hardly an existential threat to the regime, agents of the security apparatus horrifically tortured him over a period of several days, suggesting it went beyond mere intent to intimidate or deter. Neither did he hold sensitive information that the regime might have hoped to extract through torture, as the state was well aware of the subject of his dissertation by the time of his abduction.
The Regeni case suggests that torture is the NSA’s primary method of repression, regardless of whether it is effective or whom it targets. This is part of a larger pattern of wide-scale, indiscriminate repression upon which the regime has relied to maintain power. In short, torture has become an end in itself, rather than a tool administered for a specific purpose. This phenomenon would likely increase as the regime attempts to maintain its grip on power in the face of possible protests and social unrest.
Maged Mandour is a political analyst and writes the “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” column for Open Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @MagedMandour.