Egypt closes Regeni case to avoid angering the regime

The Egyptian public prosecution’s decision to close the investigation file into the murder of the Italian student, Giulio Regeni, indicates Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s keenness to avoid raising challenges from within his system.

Al-Sisi fears internal anger from within the pillars of his regime if he pushes the four accused as scapegoats. This fear prompted the Egyptian authorities and their security services to follow all evasion techniques possible, distort information, and use other stalling tactics, and use them whenever they face external pressure.

The Egyptian move came at the beginning of December to close the investigation, when it was postponed for five years. This procrastination and the false strings released by the Egyptian security services, were considered by the Italian public prosecutor, Sergio Colayucho last year, as deliberate attempts to mislead the investigations. This prompted the Rome prosecutor to finally try five Egyptian security officers in absentia in Italy, suspected of being involved in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Regeni.

According to observers, Egypt uses procrastination tactics whenever it faces external pressures to implement significant reforms at the economic, legislative, administrative, and human rights levels. But it is noteworthy that since the Regeni case was opened that al-Sisi has made no great efforts to distance his administration from the repercussions of this crime and mitigate the damage to its reputation before the international community.

On the theoretical level, it can be said that al-Sisi may have adopted this position because the threads of the operation led from the perpetrators of the crime to the Egyptian presidential office, not to the president personally. Here, there is a great similarity with the method Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Istanbul 2018. But Regeni did not pose any threat to attract the Egyptian president’s attention, and it is most likely that al-Sisi did not even know about the presence of the Italian citizen in Egypt, or even know about his disappearance before this news was circulated in the international media.

So, it seems the most likely hypothesis is that al-Sisi’s handling of the Regeni case was and is still subject to the dynamics of the relationship that brings the president together with important agencies in the state, relying on their support to fortify his presidential position and consolidate his grip on power. When it became clear that the Egyptian authorities were facing a serious problem that required the president’s intervention, the public prosecution authorities, the Egyptian security services, and the media connected to them, denied any knowledge of the crime or any involvement in it.

Al-Sisi has faced a critical situation since the beginning of this case. Even if he took appropriate measures, this would be considered a departure from his government’s official narrative. Also, the official statements issued by the security services that Regeni was kidnapped and killed by a criminal gang did not gain any credibility outside Egypt. But perhaps the real goal of these allegations was to cause al-Sisi more embarrassment if he decided to stop adopting the official position. Thus, the security services succeeded in protecting themselves by increasing the political costs involved in taking appropriate measures.

Here, Yazid Sayegh, a researcher at the Malcolm Care-Carnegie Middle East Centre, asks, “Could al-Sisi have taken a more assertive stance if he really wanted to?” He answers: “There is no doubt that he is the most powerful figure in Egypt, but he is forced to carefully measure his steps and negotiate continuously with the various institutional sectors that his ruling coalition includes.” The armed forces, the Ministry of Interior and its security agencies, and the judiciary are also affected by the competitive dynamics within each of these sectors, and by the battles between them over influence, according to Sayegh.

On the one hand, al-Sisi can exploit the existing rivalries between the various paralysis for his own benefit, given his significant influence. During his previous tenure as director of the Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance Department, he was fully aware of his colleagues’ hidden secrets. He also now controls, in his capacity as president of the country, the General Intelligence Service (which reports directly to him) and the Administrative Control Authority, which he chairs and is staffed almost exclusively by retired officers and others in active service, and uses the two agencies to intimidate and punish.

On the other hand, pitting bureaucratic groups and interest groups against on another is more than just influence, as this requires al-Sisi to offer all parties something to ensure they are on his side. However, there is no doubt that the systematic violations of human rights constitute one of the structural features of the authoritarian regime in place in Egypt, and they serve the interests of the al-Sisi administration in general. But the form these violations take and how they occur remains dependent on the agendas of the various branches and even elements in the police and security services.

Al-Sisi’s margin of independence against the main state institutions places him in a position similar to that of another Arab dictator, Saddam Hussein. Between 1991 and 2003, the late Iraqi president prevented several times the United Nations nuclear weapons inspectors from carrying out their mission, although verifying the absence of nuclear facilities and enrichment activities was a prerequisite for easing the comprehensive sanctions that the country was suffering from.

The bitter irony is that Saddam had nothing to hide, as the nuclear programme had been destroyed or dismantled. But he considered that his acquiescence to the United Nations’ demands would weaken his ability to demonstrate his strength locally and raise challenges from within his system. In this context, al-Sisi’s logic is similar to that, according to Sayigh, who said: “He cannot allow members of his ruling coalition and their networks to be considered simply to have yielded to a judicial request issued by a foreign government.” This rejection increases if it could lead to dire consequences for these members and a decline in their position within the system’s internal leadership structure.

Al-Sisi, unlike Saddam, does not face any real threat of exposure to external sanctions or otherwise, and therefore there is no reason for him to cooperate with the Italian judiciary. Sayegh added, “If Egypt’s modern history indicates anything, it indicates that al-Sisi will not make a mistake if he thinks, as his predecessors did, that external forces will always accept everything that the existing Egyptian regime does in any field.” And he continues, “The stalling and delaying tactics used by the Egyptian authorities and security services in the Regeni case succeeded, simply, because the Italian government allowed it to do so.”