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 labour 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 al-Sisi, the army general who is now Egypt’s president.
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 labourers.
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 criticised Sisi’s government, saying it had stopped “dealing with the de-facto independent trade unions, which has led labour activists to fear that labour rights gains since 2011 are facing erosion.”
By late last year, Egypt was in a state of paranoia. Government television and radio stations and newspapers had been consistently portraying the country as a victim of foreign conspiracies. Press reports described critics of the government as traitors or terrorists, and security forces were rounding up alleged opponents.
The government made protesting without permission a crime, and the number of people arrested on political grounds reached 40,000, according to human rights groups. Those groups say state torture is widespread, an allegation the government denies.
Regeni was not the only academic from Cambridge hoping for change in Egypt. In early November, a few weeks after he left for Cairo, a small group of people gathered in London to protest against an upcoming visit by Sisi. Abdel Rahman was not at the rally, but fellow Cambridge academic and activist Anne Alexander was. In a speech captured on video and now posted on YouTube, Alexander said: “I think we have sent a clear message tonight but we need to say it louder and more urgently. We need to make sure that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cannot go around the world pretending that he is a statesman. He is not a statesman. He is a killer. He is not just a killer, he should be a pariah.”
In the crowd, people held up posters backing the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sisi has banned. He describes it as a terrorist group and an existential threat to Egypt.
On December 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 mobilisation.”
A leader of the street vendors’ union, Mohamed 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.
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.
After Regeni’s death, his parents travelled to Cairo and spent a few days staying in his apartment with his roommate, Mohamed al-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.