Italian Academic Found Dead in Egypt Stirred Suspicion Before Death

Egyptian security sources say Giulio Regeni raised the suspicions of the government because of his unionist ties; human rights groups say the state is to blame for his death.

An Amnesty International activist holds a placard reading "truth for Giulio Regeni" as she takes part in protest against disappearance of the Italian student, July 13, 2016.
Reuters Staff

REUTERS - Ten days before he vanished, Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni made a Skype call from his Cairo flat to an academic in Germany.

It was the middle of January and Egyptian police were braced for political protests ahead of the fifth anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Regeni sounded anxious.

"We did not talk very much as it was expected that we will catch up at some point later," said Georgeta Auktor, a researcher at the German Development Institute in Bonn, where Regeni had spent a few weeks in 2015.

"He said he feels he needs to be careful where he goes in the city and whom he meets."

They did not speak again.

Regeni's body was found on the side of the Cairo-Alexandria highway on February 3 by passengers on a bus that had broken down, according to a police source. Egyptian forensics officials said the body showed signs of torture, including cigarette burns and beatings.

Regeni's mother, Paola, later told Italy's parliament that her son's injuries were so bad she identified him only by the tip of his nose. Egyptian human rights groups said the torture suggested Egyptian security services had killed the student, allegations those services and the government have strongly denied.

In April, intelligence and security sources told Reuters that police had arrested Regeni outside a Cairo metro station on January 25 and then transferred him to a compound run by Homeland Security. The government and security services deny he was ever in custody.

It remains unclear who killed Regeni or why. But piecing together his activity in the months leading up to his death, it is apparent that two factors put the student at risk: his passionate interest in political and economic issues and his belief that Egypt needed change. Three Egyptian security sources have told Reuters that Regeni raised the suspicions of Egypt's security services because he met unionists and was researching politically sensitive subjects.

"Homeland Security had monitored Regeni with a number of opposition leaders and labor unions. He attended several meetings," one of the sources said.

A second security source said: "He is a foreigner and does not work in the media...and this is what made Homeland Security follow and monitor him."

A third security source said that Regeni's meetings were suspicious because they took place at "a time in which many nations were intervening in what is happening in Egypt." This, he said, raised the possibility that the Italian was gathering information for a foreign nation.

But other Egyptian security officials said that even if agents were watching Regeni's activities they played no role in his death.

Two Egyptian officials - one in security, one in government - said that if security services had suspected Regeni was a spy he would simply have been deported.

A Western ambassador said that may have been true in the past, but no longer. "That is what happened in the Cold War. This is Egypt under Sisi. They are very suspicious," he said, referring to Abdel Fattah Sisi, the army general who is now Egypt's president.

Reuters has also learned that a personal disagreement may have fueled the official suspicion. The leader of one union said that another union figure likely talked to the police about Regeni after the Italian refused to buy the second man a mobile phone and overseas flights.

Regeni, who was 28, had been researching Egypt's independent unions for his doctoral thesis. Associates say he was also interested in alternatives to the long-standing domination by the state and the military of Egypt's economy.

Both subjects are sensitive in Egypt. The military's grip on the economy is a subject rarely talked about in a country that has been ruled almost entirely by military men since the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952.

And independent unions helped orchestrate the industrial unrest and strikes that paved the way for the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. Two years later, union activists supported the mass protests that led to the ouster of Mubarak's democratically elected successor, Mohamed Mursi.

Academic Auktor, who is also an associate fellow at University Erlangen-Nuremberg Institute of Economics, was working with Regeni on a paper called "Developmental State in the 21st Century - Calling for a New Social Contract." She said the Italian longed to "see the fruits of 2011. He thought a more inclusive state was necessary. He believed that the involvement of more social groups would be beneficial."

But the government of Sisi, the one-time head of military intelligence who seized power from Mursi, is wary of unions, regularly breaking up strikes and arresting laborers.

Though many independent trade unions emerged after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, they have been fragmented since Sisi took control. Human Rights Watch, a lobby group, has criticized Sisi's government, saying it had stopped "dealing with the de-facto independent trade unions, which has led labor activists to fear that labor rights gains since 2011 are facing erosion."

Egypt has expelled several Western academics in the past few years. Others conducting research there have fled, fearing arrest.

Fanny Ohier, a 23-year-old student from France, spent time in Egypt researching the April 6 movement, a driving force in the 2011 uprising. It was established in 2008, to support workers who were planning to strike in an industrial town, but has now been outlawed.

In July last year she was staying in a hotel in the town of Ras al Bar.

After a day meeting April 6 members, she was back in her hotel room when there was a knock on the door. Seven police and soldiers with pistols entered her room, she said. Her Arabic was limited, but she could make out that she had been followed in the city of Alexandria two weeks earlier.

Ohier was transported to Cairo and then deported, without being told why. "When I heard about Giulio Regeni I thought: I was lucky and he was unlucky," she said.

Another Cambridge student, who asked not to be named, said she fled Egypt in 2014 because she suspected the security services of following her.

When Regeni arrived, he immersed himself in the street vendors' world. As well as research, he wanted to help the vendors, according to friends and family. "We know he took to heart the difficult life that these people had, and hoped that things would improve for them," his parents wrote in an email to Reuters.

The street vendors' union is not an overtly political group. Its members sell everything from children's coloring books to underwear and slippers. The union has tried to gain rights for vendors, who have seen authorities remove many of their stalls from Cairo in recent years.

The vendors were not completely risk-free: In the past few years, some members have served as police informers, say security officials.

Amr Khalil, an artist whom Regeni befriended in Cairo, said the Italian was aware that police regularly used informers in Egypt. But that did not stop him trying to help the street vendors "by connecting them with organizations that could support them," Khalil said, referring to charities and financial organizations.

Regeni visited street vendors in downtown Cairo and the east of the city. He was interested in how unions recruited laborers and how they helped them, said several union members whom Regeni interviewed.

After Regeni died, Italian newspaper Il Manifesto published a short article he had co-authored with another Italian academic. Independent trade unions, the authors wrote, were "refusing to give up" despite a big rise in the number of police and military personnel, and the fact Egypt "ranks among the worst offenders with respect to press freedom."

On Dec. 11, Regeni attended a general meeting of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers' Services in downtown Cairo, according to a source in the group, one of Egypt's oldest independent groups advocating workers' rights.

Three of Regeni's friends and others he worked with said Regeni told them later that a man at the meeting had stood, pointed his phone at him, and taken his photo.

One union leader said security services may have been interested in Regeni because "he was looking into workers' unions, not actors or footballers. And as you know, workers are what is needed for any mobilization."

A leader of the street vendors' union told Reuters that the head of its West Cairo branch, Mohamed Abdallah, had asked Regeni to buy Abdallah a mobile phone and overseas flights. Regeni refused. The union leader said he suspected Abdallah talked to the police about Regeni after that rebuff.

Khalil remembers Regeni mentioning Abdallah's request for a phone and flights. After that, Khalil said, the Italian began to limit his contact with the union.

Abdallah said he liked Regeni but now regrets associating with him. He said he met Regeni six times in all. At one of those meetings, he said, the Italian "offered to set up a [training] workshop for the syndicate."

Abdallah said he worried the workshop used foreign funding, which is frowned upon by the government. Over the past few years, foreign NGOs have had staff questioned and assets frozen amid accusations they helped destabilise the country ahead of the 2011 uprising.

"You know how we feel about foreign funding here in Egypt," Abdallah told Reuters.

Abdallah said Regeni had assured him it was okay.

After the Italian turned up dead, Abdallah said he was questioned by Egyptian authorities several times, including by the interior ministry's Homeland Security Agency. Italian investigators have also spoken with him.

"They asked me the same questions that everybody had asked me since this all happened. When and where have I met him," said Abdallah. "I didn't meet him in any hidden place. It was all in the market."

Two Homeland Security sources said Abdallah frequently visited one of the main security compounds in central Cairo. He had also met with a Homeland Security officer six months before Regeni's death, they said.

"I am not sure if he was cooperating with security or not. But he was monitored for sure," one of the sources told Reuters.

"A person like that would have a mutually beneficial relationship with security. Meaning security would help him continue being the head of the union and release any of the street vendors if they get arrested."

After Regeni's death, his parents travelled to Cairo and spent a few days staying in his apartment with his roommate, Mohamed Sayad. Italian newspapers have alleged that Sayad, a lawyer, might have been an informer for the Egyptian security services.

Sayad denied the allegation. "Everything you are saying is lies," he said.

Regeni's parents said the Egyptian seemed friendly and appeared to be genuinely upset by their son's death.

Progress in the case has slowed to a crawl. The murder has strained ties between Egypt and Italy. Rome has repeatedly complained that Egyptian authorities are not cooperating.

An Italian prosecutor handling the case said he has asked Cairo for CCTV footage from the metro station where security and intelligence sources said Regeni was last seen. But months have passed and he has received nothing.

"They told us they had recorded over it," he said.