Giulio Regeni — Toward a Radical Use of Memory
[Co-written with Michela Pusterla]. Originally published by Public Seminar, on January 24, 2017.
Almost a year ago, Giulio Regeni, a young Italian scholar, was found dead in Cairo, likely killed by local security forces. A year of investigations and red herrings later, the call for truth and justice has yet to be answered. The purpose of this essay, is to investigate responsibility in this case, while considering the interconnections among strategic factors, economic interests, diplomacy, and the violation of human rights, on both the Italian and the Egyptian sides. We then discuss the political role of memory and remembrance, placing Regeni’s story within the broader framework of the Egyptian regime with its (thousands of) victims of torture — asking whether there are ways to remember (and talk about) Regeni’s case without obliterate the less visible or completely invisible others, or even to make his story an input for a radical exercise of collective memory, through what we call the logic of exemplarity. Re-narrating Regeni’s story, set at the crossroad of different memories and public spheres, can therefore radically undermine our (Western, hegemonic) way of looking at the world and shed light on the murky mapping of responsibilities.
On January 25, 2017, we mark the first anniversary of the kidnapping of Giulio Regeni, the Italian doctoral student who was later brutally killed in Egypt. A year (and some false pretenses) later, the case is still unsolved. A “Truth for Giulio Regeni” campaign continues tirelessly, while media attention has gradually and culpably disappeared. The risk that the affair would turn “stale and blameless in history and memory” — as written by Riccardo Noury, Amnesty International Italy spokesperson — has become painfully tangible, while the Italian Government’s actions have been extremely slow and almost submissive. In this context, it becomes a political and intellectual task to keep the focus on Regeni’s story and on the Italian and Egyptian responsibilities for the investigation’s deadlock. In other words, there is a performative reason for this act of writing.
“A highly promising young scholar of social and economic development in the Middle East,” as his obituary reads, Giulio Regeni was a PhD candidate at Cambridge, who moved to Cairo for his fieldwork, researching independent trade unions, especially that of street vendors, in post-Mubarak and post-Morsi Egypt. After disappearing on January 25th — on the anniversary of the beginning of the 2011 Egyptian revolution — his body was found on February 3rd, next to a road on the outskirts of Cairo. It showed signs of torture, according to the Italian ambassador Maurizio Massari, who independently got to see it, but also to the forensic and prosecution officials in Egypt and to the examiner who conducted the Italian autopsy. As acknowledged by Beccaria and Marcucci (2016: 31), “if there was a willingness to proceed, it would be easy to solve [the case] on a judicial level [that is, establish that Regeni had been tortured], just considering the signs on Regeni’s body.”
On April 21st, Reuters reconstructed the events leading up to Regeni’s death, according to six anonymous intelligence and police sources: after being picked up by plainclothes police near the Gamal Abdel Nasser metro station, Regeni was interrogated and tortured in a two-phased (according to some, four-phased) session: first, at the Izbakiya police station, then at Lazoughli, a State security compound run by Egyptian Homeland Security. Some specific signs of torture (broken ribs, signs of electrocution on his penis, traumatic injuries, cigarette burnings, and a brain hemorrhage) made human rights groups (and the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms) suggest that Regeni had been killed by Egyptian security services, which had actually tailed him since he had entered the country (he was file 333//01/2015). Regeni had actually been denounced by Mohamed Abdallah, a leader of the vendors’ union, on January 7th, within a regime-inducted xenophobic atmosphere (Declich 2016: 79–84). At the end of December, Abdallah declared that he was proud of his action, reiterating his theory that Regeni was a spy despite a total lack of evidence. The secret service revenge hypothesis was proposed, as was a car accident, a drug-related crime, a crime of passion, and kidnapping by a criminal gang — the latter theory involving the state accusing five seemingly innocent people after their deaths. But the investigations, led by Major Khaled Shalaby, himself convicted of kidnapping and torture under Mubarak, are driving ineluctably towards a torture crime.
Torture, like arbitrary deprivation of liberty and life, involves international accountability for a state. This applies not only when such crimes are performed by the state itself by its officials, but also when that state fails to adopt specifically defined measures to prevent and punish those crimes and to enable victims to obtain compensation. Article 12 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (which is binding for Egypt) states that “Each party state shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is a reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.” However, so far, Egyptian investigators have complied only formally with this prescription. As Luigi Manconi, head of the Italian Senate Committee on Human Rights, puts it: “we have yet to see something substantial.”
Although several bilateral meetings have taken place in the last few months between Italian judges and their Egyptian counterparts, many in Italy fear that Egyptian authorities will offer only the façade of a solution, incriminating a few low-level figures for an action conceived in higher spheres. Egypt has a long record of blatant human rights violations, as denounced by both institutional actors (like the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights) and non-governmental agencies (like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch). Al-Sisi’s regime represents no exception: its bureaucratic and military apparatuses are more than accustomed to extra-legal means. Considering both the lack of autonomy of the Egyptian judiciary and the “culture of silence” on torture on the part of the Egyptian functionaries currently working with Rome’s District Attorney’s office, it is hard to believe that the truth about Regeni’s homicide will emerge without any appeal to Egypt’s international responsibility.
On the other side, Italy seems to be quite reluctant in appealing to international law. While then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi — the first European leader to visit Sisi’s Egypt, in 2014 — declared: “If someone thinks that in the name of political correctness we can settle for a patchy truth, we are Italy… the truth for Giulio is not an option or a luxury,” diplomatic actions were limited to ambassador Massari’s recall — which, as of this writing, is going to come to an end, with the appointment of a new ambassador — and a Senate vote againstthe sale of spare parts for F-16 fighters to Egypt. This hesitancy can be explained by several factors. Considerable economic interests (worth 2.6 billion dollars) bind the two countries, in sectors ranging from arms, to oil, the concrete industry, and transportation. Italy is one of Egypt’s most important trading partners, especially in the energy sector: last February, Eni (once the National Hydrocarbons Authority, now a multinational company) got the go-ahead to develop the Zohr field, a huge gas discovery off the Egyptian coast. Just before Regeni’s death, an Italian company, Hacking Team, sold electronic surveillance devices to Sisi’s National Defense Council. As the Egyptian activist and filmmaker Omar Hamilton puts it:
When Italy sends annual trade delegations, when its Prime Minister stands up at an Egyptian economic conference and says, ‘Your war is our war, and your stability is our stability,’ it only means one thing. Do whatever you need to do to stay in power, to keep Egypt’s ‘competitive advantage’ for capital exploitation alive.
Moreover, Egypt is regarded as a strategic ally against IS and an barrier to the rise of fundamentalism in the area — indeed, Sisi has strong opponents in both moderate and radical parties and religious movements. In a geopolitically dramatic scenario, human rights violations are often seen by so-called Western countries as a price worth paying, in the name of avoiding complete destabilization and maintaining manageable diplomatic relations. Even Cambridge University, following the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, still considers Cairo a safe place to do research: Cairo is green on a scale from green to red.
In 2003, in a classic example of the so-called “extraordinary rendition” policy, Italian intelligence agents colluded with US colleagues to deport a terrorism suspect to Egypt, Abu Omar, even though they knew he was going to be tortured there; a condemnation of this decision by the European Court of Human Rights followed in May 2016. Recalling this story allows us to grasp the complexity of the context: on the one hand, it seems that Western countries inevitably need non-Western partners for their self-proclaimed War on Terror; on the other, the spread of authoritarian and non-democratic regimes actually put IS in a condition to thrive. We can no longer defend Sisi’s regime’s violence on a cynically functional basis — i.e. that the regime is forced to adopt repressive measures to combat a constant terrorist menace. Regeni’s death is only one of the most apparent episodes showing the sheer falsity of such a depiction: he clearly did not represent a direct threat to the government, nor he was an open opponent of the Egyptian government, and he was killed anyway.
On the other hand, we may say that the decision to kidnap and torture Regeni was not in the interest of Egyptian authorities. Indeed, there was the risk of putting the country in a diplomatically uncomfortable position and of bringing local authorities’ brutality into the limelight. As convincingly argued by Declich (2016: 73–79; see also Beccaria and Marcucci 2016: 99–106), Regeni was probably victim of a paranoid power escalation among Egyptian security forces, with different agencies and corps competing with each other for a place close to the core of the country’s power system. The growing recourse to unlawful and violent means — which is in itself a symptom of the scarce political legitimacy of those in power — is currently generating a vicious circle: popular discontent continues to increase because of the progressive erasure of the rule of law, to which state apparatuses respond with even greater cruelty. As powerfully synthesized by Hamilton: “Things are bad. And as people grow hungrier and poorer they will only get worse. So new prisons must be built.” (Ten prisons have actually been built in Egypt since 2013; cf. also Kandil 2016: 16.) A situation of this kind at the very least tests the coherence and effectiveness of the geopolitical strategy pursued in the region by foreign countries like Italy.
In the Middle East, we often have the impression that politics is inevitably a matter of weighing lives, that no measure is unacceptable in itself. In this connection, it is our conviction that reflecting on the peculiarity of Regeni’s case can challenge the rhetoric of unavoidable loss of life characterizing Western perspectives on the region.
Giulio Regeni was a polyglot, well-traveled, a cosmopolitan Italian citizen and Cambridge PhD student, who moved to Cairo to study independent Egyptian trade unions. White, European, male, a brilliant young scholar, Regeni perfectly fit in the Western cultural frame — indeed, as Beccaria and Marcucci put it, he was “the son everyone wants” (2016: 16). As his research shows, he also was truly sympathetic with the struggles of Egyptian workers, and he steadily avoided the trap of humanitarian paternalism by always acting both as a conscientious researcher and an ally. Of course, that may have made him too radical for mainstream narratives — but radicals are only problematic to support while alive, not once dead. In other words, one would expect his death to be grieved and to be remembered.
In fact, as Judith Butler reminds us, grief has its hierarchies. Writing a few years after 9/11, she found that the very cultural criteria by which we think the human limit the kinds of losses we can avow as such. We seldom, if ever, she says while reflecting on the literary form of the obituary, read about lives outside of our cultural frame: the Palestinians victims of the Israeli military, or the people of Afghanistan (Butler 2004: 32) — or those, we may add, coming from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and so on. Of course, one of the problems with Butler’s account of mourning is that it faces the risk — which Butler herself acknowledges elsewhere (Butler 2009: 93) — of providing us with a merely “first world critique.” While asserting that “we” don’t grieve Palestinians and Afghans, she is implicitly viewing them from within the Western public sphere, as it is evident that both Palestinians and Afghans are grieved by their people (Zehfuss 2009: 422–423).
According to Butler’s framework, Regeni would be a perfect martyr for the Western public sphere, while Egyptians aren’t: as non-Westerners, Egyptian people undeniably occupy a lower position in our (Western) hierarchy of grief, memory, and engagement. Many Egyptians have been tortured and disappeared over the past few years in the name of counter-terrorism, as a recent Amnesty International report shows. According to the Egyptian government itself, its security forces arrested almost 34,000 suspects from 2013 to 2015 (the figure goes up to 60,000 according to some Egyptian NGOs and rights groups), mostly Muslim Brothers and supporters of Mohamed Morsi, while hundreds more are held under sentence of death. These were people we had never heard of before Regeni’s death suddenly brought worldwide attention to the Egyptian regime. But that lasted only a couple of days.
When Giulio Regeni disappeared, a web-based campaign (#whereisGiulio) was launched by his fellow students at Cambridge, and then endorsed by the University itself. After February 3rd, a #justiceforGiulio petition was signed by almost 5000 academics worldwide, both students and faculty. But after that event, academia fell silent — no students or researchers took up Regeni’s cause, perhaps as a consequence of the highly atomized neoliberal academic experience that students undergo, which precludes a “one of us” kind of sensibility. At that point, Regeni’s memory was up for grabs. In late February 2016, the Italian section of Amnesty International and the newspaper Repubblica launched the massive #veritàperGiulioRegeni (“truth about Giulio Regeni”) campaign, thus offering a national appropriation of his memory, supported by Regeni’s parents’ tireless involvement. The campaign was hugely successful in the region where Regeni was born, Friuli — #veritàperGiulioRegeni banners are quite a common sight. If the local exercise of memory flourished, the national one did not: media attention quickly faded, while banners were removed from city hall windows by right-wing mayors. In the end, nobody really claimed Regeni’s memory: neither academia, nor students, nor the Italian left, nor social movements. Regeni’s memory was left to his parents and the Friulian local community, which he had actually left eleven years before. This obscurity allowed Italian newspapers, politicians and commentators to idealize him, abstracting from Regeni’s research and the cruelty of a regime he studied and, even if not directly, opposed.
The unfamiliarity of the Italian public with the figure of the researcher as such allowed the false narrative of Regeni as Western spy — endorsed by Egyptian investigators — to take root in Italy as well. Regeni has been depicted as a snoop, a troublemaker and even a secret agent. His denouncing of the violent practices of repression by one of Italy’s allies preventing him from becoming a victim to sympathize with on the part of the Italian public. The Italian far right blatantly repudiated Regeni’s memory; the vast majority simply ignored it.
For that matter, the portrait painted by Egyptian activists is more faithful to Regeni’s person than its Italian mainstream counterpart. This very fact opens the possibility of a radical remembrance, one that can simultaneously ask for truth and justice for Regeni and for Egyptians lives, making them grievable — and politically meaningful — even from a Western standpoint. It is here that Regeni’s case starts revealing its critical potential. As noted by Amro Ali:
Regeni is possibly the first non-Egyptian to be included into the Egyptian revolution’s narrative of martyrdom. This was the first attempt to challenge the equation of citizenship and loyalty. That a member of a transnational community can also exhibit an equal, if not stronger, loyalty to Egypt’s public welfare is telling.
El Teneen — the author of a Berlin mural showing Regeni and a quote from his mother: “They killed him as if he was an Egyptian” — says in an interview:
When Giulio’s case is solved and his offenders face justice, it will do more than bring comfort to his family. It will reignite our hope that we can someday soon stop the similar horrors Egyptian youths are subjected to on a daily basis and bring those who administer them in the name of law to face unbiased justice.
The writer Naguib, who participated in a group artwork on Regeni, adds:
I represented a portrait of Giulio with the same technique and style I use with the portraits of the Egyptian young revolutionaries who died since 2011 till now and I wrote: ‘our Italian brother Giulio, he lived among us and he died like us.’
Clearly, Regeni is situated at the crossroads between communities of mourning which usually are alien to one another, just as he embodied liminality while alive. Michael Rothberg has argued that memories of apparently separate historical events maintain deep and sometimes intricate relationships — as he shows with reference to the interconnections between accounts of the Holocaust and decolonization, which can serve as vehicles of remembrance for one another. For example, in France, the struggle for public remembrance of the massacre of Algerian protesters which took place on October 17th, 1961 has become related to the quest for a national coming to terms with anti-Semitism, after it was discovered that Maurice Papon, the man who ordered the massacre, had also collaborated with the Nazis during the Vichy years. Rothberg describes “that convoluted, sometimes historically unjustified, back-and-forth movement of seemingly distant collective memories in and out of public consciousness.” He calls this “multidirectional memory”(2009: 17). When talking about Regeni’s story and Egyptians’ lives, we are not dealing with different historical phenomena, but with diverse memories (or lack thereof) of the same context. Unfortunately, in the mode of representation to which we are accustomed in the Western public sphere, giving voice to a single tragedy can end up silencing many others, in a sort of competitive model of memory, according to which there is a zero-sum game of remembrance between different histories.
A sad confirmation of this fact is given by the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child who drowned in September 2015 while attempting to flee to Europe with his family. The picture of Aylan’s dead body received a huge popularity, and many Europeans identified the light-skinned boy with their own children, as the #CouldBeMyChild hashtag shows. However, as stressed by Nadine El-Enany, the use of the picture by Western media isolated it from the background of the Syrian refugee crisis and from the many other deaths that occurred in the same situation:
What of the refugees who do not evoke in the mind of the white European an image of their own offspring? The images of black African bodies washed up on the shores of Europe’s Mediterranean beaches last spring did not prompt an equivalent outpouring of compassion and charitable action. What of the bearded male refugee? What of the woman in the hijab or burka? What of their dark-skinned children? (2016: 14)
How can we use a privileged memory — like Regeni’s — to convey the stories of those less privileged? Perhaps a key concept could be that of exemplarity. In the words of Giorgio Agamben (1998: 20), the example works as an “exclusive inclusion.” The example shows its belonging to a class, but in the very moment in which it exhibits and delimits its class, it steps out from it. The rule, therefore, only properly applies to the example when the latter is taken as a normal case, and not when it provides an exemplification of the rule itself. The example, Agamben goes on, is strictly bound to the opposite notion — i.e. that of the exception, the inclusive exclusion. A grammatical exception, then, is a syntagm that does not have the characteristics corresponding to a certain rule, but that nevertheless follows it — the exception, as we used to saying, proves the rule.
On the one hand, Regeni is a perfect example of Egypt’s securitarian violence — the way in which he was tortured, as we have seen, was typical of the Egyptian police’s modus operandi, and so were the red herrings fabricated after his death. On the other hand, his being a Western, white, Cambridge-educated researcher collocates him outside the very class he should exemplify — that of the typical victims of Sisi’s regime. The more Regeni constitutes the exception, the more he is exemplary. The exception here should be understood in two ways: on the Egyptians’ side, since Regeni was treated as one of them even though he was not; on the Italian side because his nationality failed to protect him. Regeni’s death abruptly unveiled the illusion of the Western passport privilege. His being the first non-Egyptian martyr of the Egyptian revolution makes a strong case for the (trans)national significance of that revolution. Regeni died as an Egyptian — and is remembered as such by the opponents of Sisi’s government. From this interpretative viewpoint, a phrase by Regeni’s mother during a press conference on March 29th is quite telling: “On Giulio’s face — Paola Deffendi said — I saw all the evil of the world.” This sentence, taken literally, is of course an exaggeration. However, we should consider its exemplary potential. Regeni’s disfigured body is a reminder of the cruelty of regimes which we usually prefer not to think about, a painful physical demonstration of the everyday consequences of foreign-policy-as-usual — in other words, one of the innumerable symbols of our world’s evil. If Egyptian activists have shown us how to re-elaborate memories on their side, the question is now how to activate and reinforce this dynamic on our side.
As we have said, the logic of the exemplar works in two ways: it allows us to remember otherwise silenced non-Western stories, and at the same time it allows us to empower Regeni’s memory, by connecting it to others.’ However, for Regeni’s memory to work in this way, conditions to really achieve truth and justice must first be created in the Italian context. Up to now, Italian law has not recognized torture as a crime, decades of activist protest and a recent condemnation by the ECHR notwithstanding. Therefore, even if the actual culprits of Regeni’s detention and assassination were to face judgment in an Italian court, they would not be convicted for having tortured him. We, as Italian activists, have to campaign for the legislative proposal now being examined by the Italian parliament to pass, or our requests on Regeni’s case will be rightly suspected of a hypocritical attitude of double standard.
Secondly, if Regeni’s memory is to be conceived also as a way to start denouncing the human rights violations taking place against Egyptian citizens, we cannot indulge further in ignoring the consequences of Italy’s foreign policy. Italian companies’ ability to sell weapons and intelligence equipment to Egypt should be seriously reconsidered, while Italian investments in the region should become a means of controlling Sisi’s internal policy, not an excuse to ignore his conduct — otherwise, the we should consider the possibility of a gradual withdrawal. Since the current Italian government is not willing to take such measures, national public opinion will have to strongly criticize its approach.
Regeni’s story would be unintelligible if kept separated from those of many Egyptian dissidents, whereas the latter, as we have seen, can be powerfully exemplified by the former, and thus resonate in the Western context. The indissoluble net of connections among memories finds its counterpart in the inextricability of political struggles: while Italians cannot really demand justice for Regeni without questioning the violence of Sisi’s regime and acknowledging the resistance movement, Egyptians could use the Regeni case — a Western foreigner killed as an Egyptian — to contrast the dictator’s xenophobic narrative.
Our focus as scholars is on reinvesting Regeni’s memory: demanding international protection for independent and academic researchers, and adequate compensation for young student researchers, in order to avoid dangerous situations in dangerous countries (e.g. paying for a cab instead of taking the subway on the most dangerous day of the year in Egypt) — this, considering that the researcher position will always be somewhat intrinsically privileged, even though, in the case of Regeni, that privilege was not enough to protect him. Another way to revitalize Regeni’s memory is to follow the Egyptian political situation, as presented by other young scholars or local reporters and activists, as a sort of post mortem tribute and an exercise of active memory.
Our focus as activists is on fighting against the risk that Regeni’s loved ones — and their Egyptian counterparts even more so — will end up suffering that condition Jill Stauffer (2015: 1) calls ethical loneliness: “the isolation one feels when one, as a violated person or as one member of a persecuted group, has been abandoned by humanity, or by those who have power over one’s life possibilities.” People facing this form of injustice, Stauffer says, find that the surrounding world will not listen to, or cannot properly hear, their testimony about what they have suffered, and what is now owed them, on their own terms. Listening to their memories and acting as sounding boards is thus a political task.
In order to achieve these goals, we call for the creation of something that does not yet exist, a sort of “radical memory network” connecting activists from different political and mnemonic contexts. The aim is to build a kind of infrastructure of remembrance, to be activated as a tool for the articulation of political dissensus. This network should be able to revitalize global stories from many local settings, stressing their interrelationships, within a narrative of resistance against every form of illegitimate power. Many different ways for realizing such a goal can be imagined, one being the artistic reproduction and translation of stories — as the Cairo murals dedicated to Regeni have shown so well. This cross-cultural re-appropriation will create novel chains of solidarity and alliance, generating a productive environment for the activation of the logic of exemplarity in the Western context.
On the first anniversary of the kidnapping Giulio Regeni, we hope this article can become an effective piece of such a network.
Verità per Giulio Regeni, and every victim of the Sisi regime.
[Co-written with Michela Pusterla]. Originally published by Public Seminar, on January 24, 2017.