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Hollow Words: Egypt, Italy, and Justice for Giulio

[Giulio Regeni] [Giulio Regeni]

Multiple fractures, cigarette burns, abrasions, fingernails forcibly removed and every finger broken, dozens of lacerations all over the body, on the soles of feet and ears all ending in a broken neck and suffocation. Giulio’s body was found semi-naked by the side of the road. 

The marks of Egypt’s security services are instantly recognizable. No one has any doubt about who killed Giulio Regeni. And so Egypt and Italy’s diplomatic and economic relationship has been thrust into the spotlight. 

Strong statements are coming out of the Italian government. The Foreign Minister insisted, “We will not settle for alleged truths,” while the Interior Minister claimed reading the autopsy “was like a punch in the stomach and we haven't quite got our breath back yet.” The Financial Times believes that Regeni’s murder “is threatening to jeopardize close relations between Rome and Cairo.”

This is a common refrain in the media, but is there any truth to it? Italian ministers claim they seek the truth—but which one? The truth about the man who dealt the killing blow or the system that is built on that blow?

And what, we must ask, is Italy’s role within that system? 

Italy has been Egypt’s top export destination for decades. Italy maintains 2.6 billion USD worth of assets in the country, including extensive stakes in the oil and gas sector, the cement industry, banking and transportation. 

Italy sells weapons, ammunition, and armored police vehicles to Egypt. In the five years leading up to the revolution, Italy sold Egypt forty-eight million USD worth of small arms and ammunition. The police trucks that line the streets of every Egyptian city and that transport riot police and run over protestors are products of the Italian company, Iveco. Hundreds of thousands of bullets fired at protestors can be traced back to Italian weapons company, Fiocchi.

But weapons are a very small part of the story. Italian companies make money all over Egypt. Take cement, for example: the Egyptian cement industry is the most profitable sector in the country’s crumbling economy. As public assets were sold off under Mubarak’s neoliberal agenda, three major firms came to dominate Egyptian cement production, namely France’s Lafarge, Mexico’s Cemex, and Italy’s Italcementi. Together these firms enjoy a monopoly, which allows them to fix prices at a staggering profit ratio of forty percent made possible by, among other things, criminal labor practices and electricity that the Egyptian government subsidizes. 

On 2 February, two days before Giulio’s body was discovered, the Italian Minister for Economic Development was heading a delegation of sixty large companies looking to “exploit the competitive advantages of Egypt.” Two days later, Giulio was left by the side of the road and the delegation quietly went home. But, as one official pointed out: “No one on the Italian side wants to question the deals that we were working on….technically, the homicide and economic relations are two unconnected matters.”

But the unswerving support of the European Union (EU) for Sisi’s regime is an essential part of the perpetual condition of unaccountability that allows the security services to regularly torture and murder people without any fear of reprisal. When Italy sends annual trade delegations, when its Prime Minister stands up at an Egyptian economic conference and says, “Your war is our war, and your stability is our stability,” it only means one thing. Do whatever you need to do to stay in power, to keep Egypt’s “competitive advantage” for capital exploitation alive.

Companies like Italicementi rely on Egypt’s security apparatus to keep that competitive advantage sharp. Were it not for the iron grip of the security services and their suppression of protest, dissent, and labor activism such vast profit margins would never be sustainable. Jack Shenker describe’s Italicementi’s corporate history in Egypt in his new book, The Egyptians: A Radical Story:

The mammoth Helwan Cement Company was founded in 1929 by royal decree…In 2001 it was part-purchased by a Swiss management and consultancy venture that was later taken over by the region’s largest private equity firm, before being bought out by a French subsidiary of an Italian multinational, which continues to run the plant today. The new owners took advantage of Egypt’s reformed labor laws, pushed through under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which enabled bosses to place workers on temporary contracts with virtually no benefits or protectors - contracts that could be indefinitely renewed. In 2007 nearly a hundred workers who had been employed continuously for more than five years on such temporary contracts were sacked without notice; their request to speak to the company’s directors was denied, and they were locked out of the factory gates. A local labor leader said the decision would ‘deprive hundreds of families of their source of living’. That year Helwan Cement’s parent company [Italicementi], headquartered 1,600 miles away in Bergamo, made a net profit of €613 million.

Giulio Regeni went to Egypt to research informal labor movements. In his final article, he discusses the “massive wave of privatizations during the last period of the Mubarak era,” and how the Sisi regime’s policies are “a further attack on workers’ rights and trade union freedoms.” He applauds “independent trade unions . . . refusing to give up” and their “bold questioning of the underlying rhetoric the regime uses to justify its own existence.” And so we must also question the rhetoric of the international regime, to keep in the forefront of our discussions how economically powerful countries like Italy benefit from the maintenance of dictatorial regimes in client states in order to better exploit their natural resources and human labor. The local business elites and international corporations make astronomical profits while the security services repress domestic opposition. That repression has long included the torture and murder of labor activists. Today it includes Giulio.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said that reading the autopsy “was like a punch in the stomach” and the quote went viral. Yet this minister who, aside from being a major Silvio Berlusconi ally, famously extradited the wife and child of a political dissident - sending them to an unknown fate in Kazakhstan, where Italian energy giant ENI has a major stake in the country’s Kashaghan oil field.

In August of last year that same company, Italy’s ENI, discovered a “supergiant” gas field in Egypt’s northern waters.. ENI proudly announced that it was largest field in the Mediterranean with estimates of value up to 100 billion USD.

With this much money on the table, it is hard to lend credence to newspapers’ talk of strained relations. 

Of course, if Italy were serious about promoting justice, human rights, democracy and accountability, as all EU member states continuously claim to be, then the conversation now would be completely different. Not only would economic interests be leveraged against Sisi, but also we would be discussing economic justice and how to end to this economy of exploitation that reinforces the rich and crushes the poor. We would be discussing what reparations northern states and corporations owe the south for decades of plunder, enabled by their economic fortification of repressive regimes, and how to shake off those regimes once and for all. 

But there will be no appetite for such justice. There will not even be a temporary halt in weapons sales or drilling or the removal of a single euro from any of Egypt’s wildly profitable deregulated economies. 

There will be stern statements. Maybe we will even see a policeman in court. And then what? Nothing will be done to address the endemic violence wrought by the Egyptian state upon its subjects, or the active Italian participation in that economy of violence. Maybe the police will think twice about torturing the next visitor to death but it will do nothing about the thousands of Egyptians who languish in prison cells today or the hundreds of families still grieving over children lost yesterday. In these moments of grief and anger it is important not to accept whatever sacrificial foot-soldier is offered to placate, but to see Giulio’s death as the result of a system that is actively maintained by powerful players all over the world. Giulio Regeni has joined the ranks of Egypt’s martyrs, and he will only have justice when Mohamed al-Guindy, Talaat Shabib, Adel Abd al-Sami, Mohamed al-Shafie and all the other names we know and those we do not yet know have justice.

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