Giulio Regeni was an Italian student studying for a doctorate at Girton College, Cambridge, researching Egypt's independent trade unions. While doing research in Cairo, he was brutally tortured and murdered, his body abandoned by a highway and found just over a year ago, on the 3rd February, 2016. Although an Italian autopsy concluded that he had been systematically tortured for around a week before his murder, what precisely took place between the day of his disappearance and his death remains clouded in mystery. It has been, and continues to be, Dr Antonio Marchesi explained, Amnesty Italy’s mission to find out the truth about what happened to Giulio Regeni, and to have those responsible brought to justice. In addition, Amnesty Italy has sought to use the case to bring attention to the hundreds of other forced disappearances and human rights violations that have taken place in Egypt over recent years (an estimated 789 in the 12 months after August 2015 alone).
Dr Marchesi explained Amnesty Italy’s strategy behind their ongoing campaign "Verità per Giulio Regeni" (Truth for Giulio Regeni). As Regeni’s case is an unusually international one, rather than focusing on just one government, Amnesty has targeted three: the British to some extent, but principally the Italian, and through them, the Egyptian authorities. The basic idea behind the campaign is to have as many people hang a yellow banner with the words "Verità per Giulio Regeni" in as many places as possible, especially on public buildings. This gesture has become contagious: its simple, memorable message, and its prevalence have made it an issue prominent in the public imagination. The campaign also involves the formation of alliances with the media, especially investigative journalists, universities, NGOs and local governments to put Giulio’s case on the political agenda. Most of all, the support of Giulio’s family has been crucial; they have fully supported Amnesty’s mission to present Giulio’s case as symptomatic of the wider problem of human rights violations in Egypt. The family’s outspoken support and, Dr Marchesi added, the fact that Giulio could be presented as kind and generous, a symbol of well-educated, ambitious Italians all helped make the campaign of raising awareness a success.
What has proved more difficult, however, has been converting this public awareness into governmental action, which is the campaign’s ultimate objective. Amnesty Italy has been lobbying the Italian government to respond forcefully to Giulio’s murder by suspending diplomatic relations with Egypt, and ceasing its supplies of arms and security transfers until Giulio’s case is fully resolved. Initially the government’s response seemed promising: the Italian ambassador was withdrawn and Italy suspended its supply of replacement aeroplane parts to Egypt. But Amnesty has a challenge ahead, Dr Marchesi observed, in preventing the Italian government drifting back into full cooperation with Egypt. The temptation for them to do so is real: the Italian government sees the Egyptian government as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, Italy’s primary foreign policy objective is stability in Libya (where Egypt wields great influence), and there are also many commercial interests at stake: many Italian energy firms have operations in Egypt. To stymie the attraction of realpolitik, Amnesty is fully dependent on public engagement remaining high. The risk of interest dropping as time goes on, Dr Marchesi cautioned, is high. But by the same token, the reason for people at the grassroots to remain vigilant and proactive is powerful.
Florence Gildea is an MPhil candidate in the Sociology Department. Sign up for future CGHR talks.