The Search for the ‘‘The Real Truth” and not “a Convenient Truth.’’

Sent On: 
Sun, 2017-08-20
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The New York Times Magazine published a detailed report about the torture and murder of ItalianPhD student Giulio Regeni who focused in his study on Egyptian street vendors’ union, “hoping to assess their union’s potential to drive political and social change.” He disappeared on the 25th of January 2016. Regeni’s friends immediately suspected political motives and started a campaign with the hashtag #whereis­giulio.


It was clear Regeni had been brutally tortured and deliberately murdered. Fingers were rapidly pointed at Egyptian security who denied responsibility. As a result of his murder, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) issued a statement advising students not to travel and study in Egypt. The Center for Arab-West Understanding, Egypt’s largest internship provider, issued a counter statement making it clear that, whatever happened surrounding the death of  Giulio Regeni does  not reflect a general Egyptian policy towards international students living in the country. In the forty years of my involvement with Egypt, I have met with non-Egyptians who have been refused entry to Egypt. Reasons are usually not given, but from knowing the background these foreigners, most of them were involved in Christian missionary work or were politically active;  thus these must have been reasons for Egyptian authorities responding the way they did.


German-Egyptian human rights activist Philip Rizk relayed to us his experiences in an Egyptian jail cell in 2009.  Rizk reported that he received  much intimidation from his police handlers.  However, it should be noted that from the information he provided, there was no indication that his life was being threatened at any moment. I have never in my 40 years in Egypt heard of the torture and murder of a non-Egyptian in Egypt before. Giulio Regeni’s torture and murder, as gruesome as it was, could thus not have been a policy of Egyptian authorities.


The torture and murder of Giulio Regeni not only sparked  outrage not only in Italy,  but worldwide. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (2014-2016) asked for ‘‘the real truth, and not a convenient truth,’ since the Italians, based on US intelligence, knew already “ that Egypt’s leadership was fully aware of the circumstances around Regeni’s death.” An official quoted by the New York Times commented ‘‘I don’t know if they had responsibility. But they knew. They knew.’’


By then a team of seven Italian investigators had arrived in Cairo to help with the Egyptian investigation. However, they were being hindered, the New York Times wrote “at every turn.” Was it because Egyptians believed that the truth would be too embarrassing?


The search for truth turned to be extremely difficult. Italian Senator Luigi Manconi pointed to the dark side of Egypt’s all powerful security agencies and noted the possible rifts between them. Furthermore, the New York Times reports that “Italy’s intelligence services needed Egypt’s help in countering the Islamic State, managing the conflict in Libya, and monitoring the flood of migrants across the Mediterranean.” Additionally, the Eni, Italy’s state-controlled energy company, had a major interest in the newly discovered Zohr gas field, 120 miles off the north coast of Egypt. Business had to go on between the two states and the investigations around Giulio Regeni’s murder, parties with vested interests believed, should not hamper mutual interests.


After months of strained diplomatic ties, it turned out that people Regeni had trusted had betrayed him. Muhammad Abdullah, Regeni’s contact in the street vendors’ union, for example, was an informant for the National Security Agency. Egyptian officials admitted to having surveilled Regeni but insisted they had not abducted or killed him. Then who murdered him and why?


The New York Times reports on a common theory that points to the work of a rogue officer. A well-informed former Egyptian Member of Parliament that I have met at the time believed that to be very likely, since officers do have large freedoms in how they act. Unveiling the identity of that officer, he said, would create unease among other officers of similar rank since many officers believe they need their freedoms to act decisively against extremists of all kinds.


Regeni was not just murdered. He had been severely tortured before his murder. Why? Did Regeni believe his passport would protect him? Did he refuse to give information? We don’t know.

Others, the New York Times wrote, believe that Regeni’s murder was “a message to other foreigners and foreign governments to stop playing with Egypt’s security.’’  


The Egyptian sensitivity of foreigners mingling in Egypt’s internal affairs is definitely present. Foreign entities have been providing support to particular activists and groups they sympathized with. Foreign entities have also done so in countries as Syria, Libya and Yemen with disastrous consequences for these countries.


I have met with a high level Egyptian diplomat who provided hours long very detailed information about foreign political interferences in Egypt and made it very clear that this was not appreciated by Egypt, stating clearly that he hoped that I would be able to play a role in passing this message to my political contacts in the Netherlands, which I did.


Speculations as to who  killed Regeni and why continue.


General Giuseppe Governale of the Italian counterterrorism and anti-mafia operations states that “the Arab mentality is to procrastinate until everyone forgets,’’ but he has not given up hope to find answers.


This procrastination I have myself experienced with Nabil Osman, head of the State Information Service in 1997. At that time, I was working on investigating the al-Kosheh murders and knew for certain that much of the reporting of Coptic activists at the time, receiving international media attention, was simply not true. I suggested to Nabil Osman that a team of investigators, including Dr. Milad Hanna, a well known Coptic scholar, and Dr. Mike Fowler, human rights lawyer and professor of mass communication at AUC, should work to unravel the full story.  However, Nabil Osman, after he had shown an initial interest, which had motivated Milad Hanna to agree to join the team. declined with the argument that by the time the investigators would present their report, the al-Kosheh story would have been forgotten;  thus why bring that issue back to the surface?  Raising the issue a second time, Nabil Osman argued, would remind readers of an episode that Egypt would rather forget. Nabil Osman was wrong.


The story on al-Kosheh was kept alive by Coptic activists and it was further complicated by a massacre on January 2, 2000 which was followed by more negative reporting about Egypt for the following years. I believe that this massacre could have been prevented if we would have had a detailed report of what had happened in al-Kosheh in 1997 and thus where mistakes had been made (nothing indicated of deliberate planning), both by officials and church leadership.  Such reporting would have, in turn, helped Egyptians to formulate policies from making this re-occur.

Authorities preferred to sweep the story under the rug. I can understand why. The report would have certainly included a critique on how Bishop Wissa of Belyana had handled the crisis. With all his intentions to support his own Coptic community, the bishop was not an investigator, and had broadcasted views including various allegations which had inflamed opinions. He was, furthermore, seeking support for his own position, instead of searching for the truth and realizing that also people in his own Coptic community could have lied to him. Possibly also other local parties could have acted more wisely. All would be upset by a report and thus why would authorities allow that to happen? Thus the choice was made to make an effort to sweep this story under the rug. This is indeed a common policy in Egypt. Despite the fact that the reasons in the case of al-Kosheh were understandable, and they may be as well for many other stories, I believe that the damage is larger if transparency is not given and mistakes are not corrected.


General Giuseppe Governale hopes  to find answers in the Regeni case are unlikely to be realized. Italian officials understand that the investigation into the who and why of the murder of Regeni is no longer decided by police investigations but by politics. Business between Italy and Egypt needs to resume. The Italian Ambassador will return to Cairo and the Zohr gas field is on track to begin production in December.


The lessons for our student interns are clear


Foreign students should never get involved in Egyptian politics. Students are here to observe and learn, not to take side for this or that political entity in Egypt. Foreign students shouldn’t become advocates for democratization or human rights in Egypt. Foreigners also should refrain from any type of missionary work, that is, advocacy for a particular belief or conviction, not only the Christian faith. Advocacy work for any conviction should be left to Egyptians only.


Reports of students should be descriptive, and not admonishing any political entity or instructing them of what to do in Egypt. Only in this way student internships can be safe. There are practically no more demonstrations in Egypt, but if one would take place, a foreigner would need to avoid them in all cases. We have seen foreigners being curious but during the times of unrest in Egypt this has also led to the death of some of these foreigners.


We would have never allowed an intern to investigate street vendors as Regeni did. His work was obviously politically motivated. That does not justify in any way his murder and I would have wished that Egyptian authorities would have banned him from entering the country altogether instead of his gruesome torture and murder.


The second lesson is that investigative reporting is extremely difficult in Egypt. Throughout the years, I have come to realize that one can make an effort to find the truth and one can get certainly closer than what is usually reported by political activists. However, ultimately, there almost always remains a point where one needs to say “I don’t know’ and thus there is no choice but reporting on possibly opposing positions and stating that we cannot know.


An example is the Muslim gunmen who opened fire on Christian worshippers in Nag Hammadi on Coptic Christmas, January 7, 2010. This attack left seven Christians and one Muslim bystander dead. This was a revenge killing for the sexual relation between a Muslim minor girl and a Christian man in the nearby town of Farshut which had been followed by days of riots and attacks on Christian businesses and properties in the town. I have been to Nag Hammadi. Muslims widely believed this relationship involved  rape and Christians all believed this sexual relation had been consensual. I had no way of finding out the truth, but Christians in the area knew that Muslims would not tolerate such a mixed relation. A Coptic Orthodox priest in Farshut claimed the Christian boy who had been involved was a newcomer to the town. Christians who had lived here for generations, he argued, would have never been involved in such insensitive behavior.


Thus, investigative descriptive reporting can help us towards a better understanding of the factors involved. However, we also need to accept that knowing the  full truth may always remain a wish that will probably never be fulfilled.


Cairo, August 19, 2017

Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report


For the full text of the New York Times Magazine, August 15, 2017 click here: