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Our Man in Cairo: El-Sisi and the West

How the US and EU are turning a blind eye on Egypt’s human rights record for their own economic and political interests.

A film by Bence Mate 

On February 3, 2016, Cambridge University researcher Giulio Regeni was found dead in a ditch on the outskirts of Cairo. His body bore the signs of heavy torture.

The 28-year-old Italian citizen, who was living in Egypt to collect information for his PhD thesis on independent trade unions, had vanished on the streets of Cairo on January 25 – the fifth anniversary of the Tahrir Square revolution.

The 2011 revolution had put an end to Hosni Mubarak‘s 30-year rule and raised hopes that Egypt would become the Middle East’s largest democracy. But the so-called Arab Spring was short-lived.

Democracy is not our priority. It never was ... What matters is our bilateral relations.

by Alain Gresh, former editor, Le Monde Diplomatique

Since taking power in 2013, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has ruled the country amid human rights violations as well as an escalation in armed attacks on the Sinai Peninsula that have killed more than 3,000 people.

Human rights organisations estimate that since 2013 at least 323 people have died in custody, 60,000 were arrested on political charges, and more than 15,000 civilians, including 150 children, have faced military trials. “Enforced disappearance” has become an everyday occurrence.

“Many journalists and activists disappear for several days or even weeks and after some time they reappear in court to be tried,” says Amr Magdi, Human Rights Watch. “Despite this, the government still denies enforced disappearances.”

So for many Egyptians, what happened to Regeni did not come as a surprise.

Even though strong evidence pointed to the involvement of Egyptian security services in the killing of Regeni, the authorities denied any responsibility and dismissed “western suspicions”.

The Italian government immediately recalled their ambassador. But, according to journalist Ugo Tramballi, “it had no effect. The Egyptians were unwilling to work with us to find the truth.”

Declan Walsh, Cairo bureau chief of The New York Times, explains that “the Regeni case came at a particularly sensitive moment for relations between Egypt and Italy … The Italian energy company ENI was in the process of developing the largest gas field in the Eastern Mediterranean called Zohr in conjunction with Egypt.”

Zohr gas field is worth an estimated $6.4bn to the Italian gas giant. The political stalemate caused by Regini’s murder came to an end when Italy sent a new ambassador to Cairo and resumed diplomatic relations with Egypt a few months before the Zohr project.

“An economic relationship like that which ENI is pledging to Egypt and Egypt is pledging ENI, although we might dislike it, is infinitely more powerful than the death of a 28-year-old Italian,” says Luigi Manconi, former president of the human rights commission in the Italian senate.

Western countries are often accused of overlooking Egypt’s human rights record and its disregard of the rule of law because of the country’s geopolitical, economic and strategic importance. 

Egypt – Israel’s next-door neighbour and the country controlling access to the Suez Canal – is a key US ally and a major business partner to Europe. The Egyptian president, who is responsible for the incarceration of thousands of political dissidents, is still seen in the West as an ally in the pursuit of regional stability.

“It’s been a very simple bargain. The United States has provided Egypt with a large amount of military aid every year and in return Egypt has kept the peace with Israel, has provided access to the Suez Canal for American warships, and has provided America with a very strong pillar in the middle of a very volatile region,” explains Walsh.

Egyptian-American Mohamed Soltan was a political prisoner in Egypt from August 2013 to May 2015. After his release, Soltan dedicated his life to advocating freedom of speech and social justice. He worries about what the country will look like in the years to come, as Sisi remains the man to be reckoned with in Cairo.

According to him and others who have seen Egyptian prisons from the inside, repression, torture, prison conditions, and the conflation of all dissent with terrorism may prove to be counter-productive in the long run and lead to radicalisation.

“The same prisons in the 60s, 70s and 80s produced Islamic jihad movements that gave birth to al-Qaeda, that then grandfathered ISIS. I don’t even want to begin to imagine what we are going to have in five, 10, 15 years,” says Soltan.

Starting from the murder of Cambridge researcher Guilio Regeni, Our Man in Cairo investigates how – despite his human rights record – Western leaders have embraced Sisi as a strategic and commercial partner and asks whether Sisi is really such a good bargain for the West.