In the mid-December cold, the young man with European features left his home in the Cairo neighborhood of Doqqi, passing by a building marked “owned by artist Mohamed Rushdi.” The building hosted a small gym, outside of which several young men usually loitered, their imposing bodies covering a faded yellow wall, whose color, with the crowd of boys in front of it, broke up the normally calm rhythm of the street, just a few meters from the racket of Tahrir Street. He then passed into the din of the metro station and then into the quietness of a late Friday afternoon at the beginning of Qasr al-Aini Street. From there, he made his way to two open rooms ringing with a different kind of cacophony—the dreams and hopes of Egyptian union leaders.
At the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, trying to avoid all the video and still cameras, he stood in a corner following speeches by union leaders and labor activists. Sharp and direct, they vehemently attacked the government because of a publication it had issued calling for the boycotting of independent unions. According to his friends, the force of the meeting and the courage of the speakers left the young man in shock. But someone snapped his photo, which made him uneasy. By the end of the day, the feeling had turned to anxiety. It was the first time he had experienced such a feeling since his arrival in Cairo more than two months earlier, in mid-September, he confided to a friend the next day, according to al-Masry al-Youm sources who requested anonymity..
After the meeting, Giulio Regeni made his way back to the streets of downtown Cairo, heading toward Strand Cafe in Bab al-Louq. A graduate student at Cambridge University, he was on his way to meet Fatma Ramadan for the first time, the head of the independent union for tax collectors, one of the two unions on which his research was focused.
He raised the subject of the CTUWS meeting, sparking a long conversation with the well-known union leader. Ramadan remembers they disagreed in their assessment. Whereas he saw enthusiasm, she saw more of the same; where he saw courage, she saw mere talk. Summarizing their disagreement she says, “He was enthusiastic, impressed. I was frustrated and indifferent.” Sitting in a cafe a few meters from the one where she met Giulio for the first time, Ramadan recalls, “He seemed smart, kind, and sincere about what he was doing.”
Two months before the meeting, to mark twenty years of living in Egypt, another Italian invited 100 of his friends, Egyptians and foreigners, to a party on the roof of a hotel in Doqqi overlooking the Nile. There in the autumn night, Giulio met Amr Asaad for the first time. A professor of business administration with a leftist leanings, Asaad later became one of Giulio’s closest friends in Egypt. “Despite the age difference,” he says, “we became friends.” In October and November, the relationship was mostly academic. “I would help him find sources and we would have long talks about the little details,” Asaad says. In December and January, the friendship deepened. “We were bound by our love of art, so we became friends. He would talk to me about workers and unions, and love and art,” he says.
Asaad paints a picture of Giulio the researcher: “He was tireless, smart, and very serious.” He was loving. “He asked [for my advice] about the most romantic places he could take his girlfriend when she would visit him in Cairo.”. He was giving. “He was remarkably engaging with street vendors, talking to them and visiting them where they worked.” He was daring. “He told me that he wanted to apply for a 10,000 euro grant from a British organization for the street vendors union and that he shared this with one of his sources at the union.” And finally, he was discontented. “After his return from the Christmas break, he dropped the idea of the grant. When I asked him why, he said he was annoyed by what he described as an attempt at exploitation by one of the street vendors he had been regularly meeting with.” He explained, “He asked him for a cellphone and then hinted that he wanted [his help] to move abroad.”
Giulio quickly adapted to life in Egypt after his arrival in mid-September. In two months, a few words of Arabic and even fewer friends had grown into a strong network of relationships, from university professors to street sellers on Ahmed Hilmi Street, and in Heliopolis and Dar al-Salam.
The distance between 8 Yanbaa Street—off al-Ansari Street, which is off Tahrir Street—to the Buhouth metro stop is about 400 meters. Giulio usually walked them in an average of about five minutes, reaching the metro that would normally take him into the world of Cairo. Giulio walked these 400 meters, or less, on 25 January 2016 the fifth anniversary of the revolution—the last day he was seen alive—before suddenly disappearing. According to prosecutors, cellphone network towers detected his last known movements in these 400 meters between 7:45 and 8:31 pm.
The memorial page for Giulio on the Cambridge University website provides more details about the researcher. His friends call him smart, a lover of knowledge, cooperative, and brave. The page reveals that this was not Giulio’s first time in Cairo. He was here for a longer period in 2012, working as a researcher for the UN Industrial Development Organizations (UNIDO), having earned a BA in Arabic and political science from Leeds University. He then returned to Europe to work at Oxford Analytica for nearly a year, before returning to Cambridge in 2014 to complete his PhD in economic and social development in the Middle East. He was also a visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo (AUC) from September 2015 to March 2016 and planned to return to his university afterward. But someone interfered with his plans.
Hoda Kamel, the coordinator for labor issues at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, greets you with a sweet smile before quickly disappearing among the unionists, activists, and paperwork. She and her smile return but before she can answer your first question, a visitor at the center inquires about something and she disappears again. Her constant activity and dense network of relationships is why Dr. Rabab al-Mahdi, Giulio’s research advisor at AUC, suggested she could be of assistance to Giulio. “We met about six times,” Kamel says. “The first meeting was in October at the Center’s office, to give him an idea of the experiences of the independent unions.” The last meeting “was on January 19. He had questions about the minimum wage in Egypt, when it went into effect and who benefitted.”
According to academic sources who requested anonymity, Giulio’s first stay in Egypt in 2012 ended after the hysteria about foreign spies. Government television aired public service announcements warning of foreign spies, and as news spread of citizens detaining foreigners they suspected of being spies, “leaving Egypt seemed the most logical next step,” the source said.
Giulio was aware of the situation. Hoda Kamel describes him: “He did not look provocative. He did not grow his hair out or walk around wearing shorts on the street. He wore no accessories on his wrist or rings on his fingers. His hair was always neat and his clothes were very conventional. He carried a jacket and a notebook.” According to other sources close to Giulio, the first time he became nervous during his second stay in Egypt was after his photo was taken at the independent union meeting on 11 December 2015. The anxiety seemed to have some effect on his behavior. Walking downtown to the paper’s office, Amr Asaad tells us, “Giulio left on 20 December to spend the Christmas break in Europe. He came back on January 2. A week before the anniversary of the revolution, he told me he would not leave his house for a week starting on January 18, except for necessities…He understood that the security situation on the anniversary of the revolution was not good.”
No one has the full story of what happened as the sun set on 25 January. Giulio had planned to go out and meet an Italian friend, Gennaro, a professor at the British University in Egypt, in Bab al-Louq Square. From there, they would go together to see Hassanein Kishk, a professor of sociology and expert at the National Center for Sociological and Criminological Research. Gennaro expresses regret to their common friends: “Why did we decide to meet in Tahrir? We should have met at Giulio’s place, it is closer to Hassnein Kishk’s house.” The Giza Incidents chief prosecutor, Ahmed Nagi, says that the last signal from Giulio’s phone cam from the street between his home and the metro, between 7:45 and 8:31 pm.
Amr Asaad remembers their last phone contact: “I received a message from him at 6:30 pm, asking if there were any plans, for Hassanein Kishk. He was asking about plans to celebrate his birthday.” Giulio had just turned twenty-eight days before. He then called Genaro at 7:40 pm to tell him he was leaving the house and heading to the metro. He also sent a Skype message to his girlfriend around that time, telling her he was getting ready to go out. (Al-Masry al-Youm attempted to contact his girlfriend, but she refused to speak to us at his family’s request.) Starting at 8:31 pm, his calls went straight to voicemail indicating to callers that his phone was perhaps turned off.
Twenty-five minutes passed after Giulio’s call to Gennaro and Giulio had still not arrived. Gennaro tried to phone him between 8:18 and 8:31, but there was no answer, and then the phone was turned off. According to his statement to the prosecution, he headed to the home of Hassanein Kishk. About three hours later, he began to worry about his missing friend, so he called Noura Fathi, one of Giulio’s oldest friends in Egypt, going back to Cambridge. She called Giulio at home. Gennaro knew then that Giulo was not at home and not at the birthday party. A mutual friend, lawyer Malek Adly, went to the Qasr al-Nil and Abdin police stations and sent a colleague to the Doqqi station. But Giulio had disappeared without a trace.
On the morning of the next day, Rabab al-Mahdi, the political science professor at AUC, woke up at home, near the center of the city, to a panicked phone call. Giulio’s friend told her he had disappeared. “From the first moment, I knew that his disappearance was not voluntary,” she said. She contacted the AUC administration and the Italian embassy, urging them to take action. “Everything pointed to that—the state’s hysteria about everything it does not know, the forced disappearances, the anniversary of the revolution with all the regime’s panic, his turned-off telephone. They were all clear signs. The disappearance was not an accident. We had to move fast.”
On the other side of the Nile in Maadi, Amr Asaad woke up to more than sixty missed calls and messages from Gennaro, his and Giulio’s mutual friend. “There was terror in his messages. He was afraid, he did not know what to do.” Genaro went to the Qasr al-Nil police station, while Noura and Giulio’s roommate went to the Doqqi station. Police reports were filed.
Later, Giulio’s friends began to quietly publicize his disappearance. The news spread quickly, especially among his Egyptian friends, despite the resistance of several of his Italian friends. Asaad recalls, “Gennaro was afraid to let it be known widely that Giulio had disappeared. He thought that not spreading the news would help him, but we knew that what could help him was announcing it and exerting pressure.”
A few days later, a hashtag began to circulate: #where_is_giulio, accompanied by a picture of Giulio smiling, sporting a neat beard and an olive-green sweater with the collar of a light-colored shirt showing underneath. The ambassador was annoyed by what sources close to him called the “calmness of the Egyptian police.” Giulio’s friends upped the pressure. Perhaps a gang had abducted him to extract money? A security source at AUC told Rabab al-Mahdi, “As long as his family and friends have received no ransom demand, that scenario can be dismissed.” Other scenarios began to emerge. A member of the investigating team at the Doqqi police station tells one witness in late January, “If a person were held at the Agouza station just a few meters from Doqqi, we would not know anything about it.”
In the early morning hours, microbus driver Ahmed Khaled’s day seemed like any other. He filled his seats and set off on his routine trip on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road. But a bad front tire forced him to pull over and unload his passengers on the pavement separating the tunnel leading to Rimaya Square and the road that slowly rises and curves to the right toward the desert around the Pyramids. Before he finished the tire-change, according to his statement to the Public Prosecution, several passengers were urinating in the space between the tunnel and the road, and that is when they found the body of a young man.
At first glance, his features did not suggest he was a foreigner. The passengers notified the bus driver, who notified the bus owner, who notified a policeman, who in turn notified the Giza Incidents Prosecution, specifically Hossam Nassar, the senior prosecutor at that bureau. Nassar went and surveyed the scene and released a routine news item about a body found on the side of the road. Journalists picked up the story at about 11 am on 3 February and published the item as follows: “The South Giza Incidents Prosecution ordered today, Wednesday, investigations by the security apparatus to determine the circumstances surrounding the finding of an unidentified body of a young man of [the age of] about thirty. He is thought to have died under torture, and the prosecution allowed an autopsy to determine the cause of death. The prosecution also permitted an analysis of the DNA of the deceased and the publication of the body’s description in an attempt to identify it.”
At roughly this same time, preparations were almost completed for the meeting between President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and the Italian minister of economic development, along with representatives of thirty-seven major Italian enterprises. Khaled Abu-Bakr, the chair of the Egyptian-Italian Business Council, said, “The Egyptian side had prepared numerous investment projects to propose to the Italians, especially in the sectors of renewable energy, petroleum, gas, petrochemicals, process industries, and the environment.” But the winds did not bear good news.
After a morning meeting with President al-Sisi, punctuated by one or more questions about the missing Giulio, Italian sources told al-Masry al-Youm, the meeting concluded at noon. Just a few hours later, at about 5 pm, the Italian ambassador, who chose not to speak to al-Masry al-Youm, received a phone call from a friend in the Egyptian government informing him that the Italian youth had been found dead, apparently after being tortured. “The ambassador tried to find out where the body was,” the source continued, “but all of his calls to the Ministry of Interior went unanswered, until late on the night of 3 February, when an old friend told him that Giulio’s body was at the Zeinhom morgue.”
Inside the morgue, confusion reigned. Two doctors with the Forensic Medicine Authority were about to begin the autopsy after conducting a half-hour preliminary examination. But then they received orders to stop, according to a source inside the morgue who preferred to remain anonymous. They were told to wait for Dr. Hisham Adel-Hamid, the head of the authority, to supervise the drafting of the final report.
Sources close to Giulio who requested anonymity told al-Masry al-Youm that Giulio’s phone was turned on for a few minutes on the morning of 26 January, the day following his disappearance. An incoming call went unanswered before the phone was again turned off. Al-Masry al-Youm took that piece of information, which could reveal Giulio’s whereabouts on the day that followed his disappearance, to the South Giza Incidents Prosecution and presented it to chief prosecutor Ahmed Nagi. He said he could neither confirm nor deny it. We asked about the final coroner’s report. He cast a glance at the thick case file on his desk, in a blue folder marked in large black letters “homicide.” He lifted his head up, smiled, and refused to release any information contained in the report, which was issued on 14 February. “Disclosing the details of the report will compound the difficulties of the case and reduce the chances of catching the perpetrators,” he said. But he did say that the report identified the time frame in which Giulio was tortured. A source inside in the Forensic Medicine Authority who saw the final report before it was turned over to the Public Prosecution fills us in on the details: “The young man was tortured for five separate, not continuous days…The torture was not ongoing. On some days of his 10-day disappearance, he was not assaulted.”
The chief prosecutor denied that Giulio had been tortured with electroshocks to his genital area, while the Italian ambassador told BBC, “I observed wounds, bruises, burns, and broken ribs. There is no doubt that the young man was severely beaten and tortured.” But the second autopsy carried out in Italy confirmed, according to the Italian interior minister, that Giulio had been subject to “inhumane, animal-like violence.” A source who had seen photos of the victim said, “His faced was bruised, his ears appeared to be split with a razor at the top, and his palms showed marks that seemed to be traces of restraints.”
At the same time and day of the week when Giulio’s body was thrown on the side of the road, we went to the last site of the crime scene. The road was packed in the early morning hours, and there were few pedestrians in sight. But a few guards sat around a fire and a teapot by a building overlooking the triangular space separating the tunnel that leads to Rimaya Square and the on- and off-ramp to the Pyramids desert road. There a few guards sat around a fire and a teapot. They initially refused to speak before pointing and saying, “They found him here.”
“No one saw a thing,” one of them said. “No one can see a thing unless he stops, parks his car, and gets up on the pavement.” Speaking with a rural accent, another one asked, “The foreigner they found—what was he doing?” A policeman standing in front of the chief prosecutor’s office asked the same question, but more heatedly, wondering, “What do they with all this research?!”
Hossam al-Mallahi, the head of the higher education missions and delegations sector, answered the question in a telephone interview with the paper: “Currently some 1,000 researchers reside in Egypt, affiliated with private and government universities.” He explains, “The research process is well known. Researchers provide content and major human contributions to the global academic movement.” Given al-Mallahi’s position, the statement is not unexpected. But other incidents—as when Marie Duboc, a labor researcher, was denied entry to Egypt in late 2011 when conducting research on Shebin al-Kom workers—suggests others are less understanding.
In an interview at al-Masry al-Youm’s offices, Mohammed Abdullah, the head of the Street Vendors Syndicate in western Cairo, was more understanding of Giulio’s work: “I met him more than ten times. I went with him to the Ahmed Hilmi station and we met the street vendors. We went to Heliopolis and met others.” In another interview Rabie Yamani, advisor for the syndicate, was even more understanding: “These are people who want to help us,” he said. “He tried to talk about union awareness, how we could help street vendors and raise their awareness of unions.”
Yamani shows us text messages he received from Giulio. In one message, they agree to meet on 17 January in Tahrir Square, before Giulio begged off due to circumstances beyond his control. Yamani sympathizes with Giulio and says others do, too: “All the street vendors who dealt with him feel pain and sadness. His only goal was to help us.” In contrast, Abdullah seems apathetic. “Before Giulio left for his Christmas break, he approached me about applying for a workshop for us with a British organization. Since then, I felt wary. I started to keep away from him and I did not feel comfortable with him.” This contradicts Amr Asaad’s version of the story. He had said that before Giulio traveled, he wanted to secure a grant for the street vendors union, but after he returned, he ignored it. When Asaad asked, Giulio said he was annoyed by one of the officials with the union, feeling that he was trying to take advantage of him.
Mohammed Abdullah kept Giulio at arm’s length, he said, after he began to feel apprehensive, but he denies reporting his concerns about the researcher to any security agency. “If we see a corpse, we turn our backs,” he said. “Giulio always talked with all the street vendors. Maybe they got the same feeling. I always found him at the Ahmed Hilmi market surrounded by lots of vendors, talking and laughing with them, and half the vendors are police informants.” This does not match the story from the Azbakiya and Shubra police stations. The stations share administrative supervision of the market, which has a permanent security deployment composed an officer, a junior policeman, and two recruits who are responsible for monitoring the area. Colonel. Mamdouh Samir, the Shubra station chief, strenuously denies that Giulio visited the market. “Officers are always present there,” he said. “If he had gone to the market, I would have been personally informed.” General Bassem al-Shaarawi, the chief of the Azbakiya station, says virtually the same thing: “He did not come to the market or the station. We have cameras everywhere. For him to enter the station and us to conceal his entrance would be impossible.”
Three weeks worth of investigations have neither confirmed nor refuted any specific scenario. Asked about the most likely scenario, Ahmed Nagi, the chief prosecutor, says quickly, “All possibilities are on the table. We have not been able to rule out any scenario so far.” We press him, asking when the case would be closed and the perpetrator listed as unknown. “We will not close the case until hearing all witnesses,” he answers swiftly. “Even if it were closed and new evidence came to light, it would be immediately reopened.”
At a memorial ceremony for Giulio Regeni organized by the AUC political science department on Wednesday, Ferial Ghazoul, the chair of the department of English and comparative literature, read an excerpt from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Mural” for Giulio:
Are they repeating the story? What is the beginning?
What is the end?
None of the dead remain to tell me the truth…
Wait for me, death, away from the land,
Wait for me in your country, while I finish
A fleeting conversation with what is left of my life.
[This article originally appeared in Arabic in Al-Masry Al-Youm.]