As Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky once remarked, human beings are distinguished from animals in their capacity to be “so artfully, so artistically cruel.” The death of Giulio Regeni is the latest evidence of this perennial truth.
An Italian PhD student at Cambridge University, Regeni was killed sometime in early February in Egypt, where he was conducting research on local labor movements for his thesis. His body was found on the outskirts of Cairo visibly maimed, showing evidence of torture, and stripped half-naked—a sign of potential sexual abuse.
Though the events leading to Regeni’s death remain unclear, there are three lessons that can be learned from his tragic fate.
First, whether or not Regeni was killed by Egyptian security forces, as Italian media sources have suggested, his murder was likely inspired by the authoritarian tendencies of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s ultranationalism. Since the military coup d’état in 2013, these tendencies have skyrocketed in Egypt, resulting in social instability and a lack of political freedoms that are far worse today than under President Hosni Mubarak.
These days, speaking freely or even hinting at dissent in Egypt can result in imprisonment or death. Regeni understood this and chose to publish his writings under a pseudonym fearful of the repression he might otherwise face. His research on labor unions empowered the very people who helped catapult Egypt to revolution in 2011. His murder might just be an unavailing attempt to ensure these individuals and the ideas they represent remain on the margins.
Second, Regeni’s death is a symptom of the gradual decline of pluralism in Egypt. After his murder was confirmed, some Egyptian media sources reacted by absolving the regime of all wrong-doing and uncritically suggesting the Muslim Brotherhood was responsible for his death. Such reactions illustrate the regime’s success in consolidating its influence and limiting the parameters of acceptable public discourse. Anyone or anything that challenges the regime’s interests receives unwavering animosity, which is why the Muslim Brotherhood has been demonized since the coup and blamed for Regeni’s untimely demise.
Finally, the reaction to Regeni’s story demonstrates that white, Western identity carries the good fortune of special treatment, even after death. Activists, journalists, and average people in Egypt have all faced fates equal to or worse than Regeni’s, yet few have received the same level of attention. Many of those who have rightly expressed outrage at Regeni’s murder have failed, for instance, to do the same for individuals like Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish-Egyptian student who has been in prison and tortured repeatedly since 2013. In fact, last year alone there were 314 documented disappearances similar to Regeni’s that went virtually unnoticed by Westerners.
While we honor Giulio Regeni and raise awareness about his murder, we must not forget that his death is a perpetual occurrence in today’s Egypt, where the tentacles of authoritarianism continue to expand unabated.