The parents of Giulio Regeni, the Italian doctoral student murdered in Cairo three years ago, last week wrote an emotionally charged letter to Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. “As long as this barbarism remains unpunished,” they told the Egyptian president, “until all those who are guilty, regardless of their position, are brought to justice in Italy, no one in the world can stay in your country and feel safe.”
Regeni was found in a ditch in February 2016, less than 2km away from the national security agency headquarters. His body, naked from the waist down, bore clear signs of brutal torture. Regeni’s parents, who say they have yet to see any sign that the murder is being investigated, said they could only identify their son by the tip of his nose. They want those responsible extradited to Italy.
Two years later, Jamal Khashoggi was seized in the office of the Saudi consul in Istanbul. Audio evidence suggests the Saudi journalist was severely tortured, his fingers severed before he was beheaded and dismembered.
That the deaths of Regeni and Khashoggi were so brutal – and so similar – is no coincidence. Both were killed for doing their jobs. The savagery and sadism of the murders points not only to an enraged intolerance of the slightest dissent, but also to an unsettling sense that their killers knew they would not be held accountable.
Since the military coup of 2013, hundreds of people have been forcibly “disappeared”, tortured and found dead. According to the Early Warning Project, only two countries are likelier than Egypt to have a mass killing in 2019.
Egypt, meanwhile, has twice refused a request from Italian prosecutors to name those suspected of Regeni’s murder, although the family’s lawyer has disclosed information about an additional 20 officers alleged to be involved in his killing. The Italian government has failed to follow up on its initially robust response, despite the insistence of Paolo Gentiloni, Italy’s foreign minister at the time, that nothing but the full truth would be accepted.
And so neither Sisi nor Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have had to take responsibility. Donald Trump’s threat of “severe punishment” following Khashoggi’s killing soon mutated into an angry dismissal of the CIA’s conclusions, a defence of the US’s “great ally” and nauseating gratitude for lowering the price of oil.
Sisi and Bin Salman know precisely what they represent, economically and politically, to the western governments that continue to support them.
Sisi knows that, for the Italian government, Egypt is a force for security and “counter-terrorism” in the region, as well as a barrier against unwanted Europe-bound migrants hoping to cross the Mediterranean from Libya. Indeed, Egypt has threatened to “flood” Italy with migrants – an eventuality no Italian government dare risk. The cries of Regeni’s parents fall deaf on Italian ears.
Similarly, Bin Salman understands Saudi Arabia’s value to the US as a commercial partner, and has looked to exploit Trump’s frightening ignorance and naivety. “I don’t want to hurt jobs,” said Trump, when asked if he would block arms sales to Riyadh. “I’d rather keep the million jobs, and I’d find another solution.”
Sisi and Bin Salman have also managed to convince Trump to reverse the US position on Libya and support Khalifa Haftar, which will have a major negative impact on the country’s stability.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have shown time and again that they have scant regard for democracy, openly scorning freedom of speech and expression. Regeni and Khashoggi only made headlines because of their connections to the west, but such incidents are all too common in both countries. The western powers that tolerate – or ignore – this behaviour tend to do so because they believe these strongmen play a role in increasing regional stability and security. Their near-daily crimes go unaddressed and the region descends further into chaos.
Now it seems the world is once again focused on the Middle East. Those that did not understand the region’s significance are beginning to do so now. And those who once believed that a liberal world order could remain intact, maintaining its moral authority while indulging or supporting tyrants, are being exposed for their hypocrisy.
Left unaddressed, state violence in the Middle East against those doing their jobs as journalists or researchers will continue with increasing zeal and frequency. The authoritarianism sweeping across the Arab world will continue to spread. The western powers who have the means to provide a solution will soon sound the death knell on their own liberal order if they fail to defend democracy, denounce tyranny, and turn a blind eye to countries that murder their own citizens or critics.