Giulio Regeni’s last messages before his death in Egypt counter spy claims


The Facebook messages written by the Cambridge student Giulio Regeni in the weeks leading up to his murder give the lie to any notion he was a spy or political agitator.

Even before he left England, Regeni was concerned about the risks he might face doing his thesis on trade unions in Egypt, a sensitive subject in the country.

But the 28-year-old thought the worst that could happen would be for him to be deported before he could finish his research.

Instead, he was snatched off the street and tortured and his semi-naked body dumped by the roadside in a brutal killing for which four Egyptian security officials are due to stand trial in Italy in October.

“Egypt is in a difficult state right now,” he wrote before leaving for Cairo, in messages shared with the Guardian by his friend. “The dictatorship is back and until recently it wasn’t clear how brutal it was going to become. It seems that it’s ‘stabilising’ now … this state of affairs is very precarious.”

Enforced disappearances are a daily occurrence under Egypt’s hardline president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Last year, the country’s human rights commission reported 2,723 enforced disappearances in the past five years, some of whom were tortured and shot.

Giulio Regeni in Oxford, UK, 2014
Giulio Regeni in Oxford, UK, in 2014. Photograph: Handout

Regeni is unusual because he was a foreigner, an Italian PhD student at Girton College who moved to Cairo in September 2015 to work on a development studies thesis about independent trade unions.

It was a touchy subject in a country that had seen a huge rise in worker representation during the Arab spring, which swept Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, to power in 2012.

Twelve months later, Morsi was toppled in a coup that eventually installed the former general, Sisi, as the country’s leader, in a return to military rule.

Regeni, who had previously studied Arabic and politics at Leeds University, decided to research his thesis in Cairo from September 2015 to March 2016, with a two-week break at home with his family for Christmas in Fiumicello, north-east Italy.

In October, a month after his arrival, he described trade unions as “the only remaining force in civil society”.

He concentrated on the street vendors, of whom there were about 6 million, who had set up a union to combat government crackdowns. Regeni said the situation in Cairo was “depressing, but not manic like 2013”.

“This doesn’t feel like it’s going to be another 30 years,” he added, in reference to the length of rule of the previous army leader, Hosni Mubarak.

But things took a worrying turn when, at a meeting of union activists, Regeni spotted a veiled young woman taking his picture on her phone, which made him fear he was under surveillance.

Street vendors in the central Attaba district of Cairo, on February 2021
Street vendors in the central Attaba district of Cairo, on February 2021. Regeni’s work focussed on them while he was in Egypt. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

He was also getting irritated by vendors hassling him for mobile phones and the head of their union asking for money for family medical bills. When the student said he could not help, Mohamed Abdallah reported him to police, later claiming he thought he was a spy.

In one of his last Facebook messages, Regeni asked for help with his English in a paper he had written.

Five days later he was snatched off the street on his way to an evening out.

Nine days after that his body was found, dumped on the side of the Cairo-Alexandria highway. He had been tortured; beaten, burned and stabbed before his neck was broken after he was struck from behind with a heavy, blunt object.

His injuries were so severe that when his mother, Paola, saw his body she could only recognise him from the “tip of his nose”.

What followed was an apparent cover-up by the authorities. President Sisi, in an interview with the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, vowed to track down the culprits. Instead it was then claimed there had been a robbery by a gang, all now dead.

But Italian investigators discovered phone records that showed the leader of the gang – all killed in a police shootout – was not even in Cairo at the time Regeni disappeared. They concluded the student’s identity documents had been planted at one of their addresses.

In large part due to eyewitnesses coming forward to say they saw Regeni being interrogated at the National Security Agency headquarters, an Italian judge last month said the four senior Egyptian security officials should stand trial. Gen Tariq Sabir, Col Usham Helmi, Col Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim and Maj Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif face charges of aggravated kidnapping. Sharif is also being accused of conspiracy to commit murder.

Egypt has closed the case and refuses to extradite the suspects to Italy, so the trial will go ahead without them.

Regeni and Johannes Svensson
Regeni with Johannes Svensson, who he shared a flat with in Cairo. Photograph: Handout

Johannes Svensson shared a flat in Cairo with Regeni while he was working for a UN agency in 2013, at the time Morsi was overthrown.

“He was interested in how this group of street vendors, who you might suspect are quite weak, organises itself in an efficient way and manages to have some political leverage.”

Regeni was an academic, not a political agitator, says Svensson.

In fact, he described Regeni as the “cautious” one when they were together on the streets in July 2013 to witness the celebrations after Morsi’s overthrow.

Since his death, Regeni has become a martyr – or shahid – for the disappeared in Sisi’s Egypt.

“That’s why there’s graffiti of him in Cairo,” says Regeni’s anonymous Facebook friend. “He is a representative figure of that.”



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