The death of Giulio Regeni, a challenge to institutional narrative

Giulio Regeni has been killed. And that is a fact. He left his apartment in Dokki, a district of Greater Cairo on the western bank of the river Nile, on January 25, 2016, and he never came back. And that is a second fact. His tortured and dead body was found nine days later in a ditch along the Desert Road that connects Cairo to Alexandria. And this is also a fact.

Everything else that has been written and said on the matter is inevitably a narration, providing a framing and reframing of events that are unavoidably politically connoted. It is time to stop the incessant flow of words that have been uttered on the matter and think what these different narrations imply, what they symbolize and what they tell us about Italian and Egyptian societies. To fully grasp the dynamics at the heart of the sequence of events, we have to “tidy” them, just like a child has to tidy his bedroom to find what he eventually needs.

Giulio Regeni’s story can be analyzed at different levels. There is the international framework that includes both the international political dynamics and the worldwide mobilization of a transnational class of intellectuals and academics. Second, there are the national frames of both Italy and Egypt, two countries currently experiencing, mutatis mutandis, political legitimacy crises. The first one is governed by a political leadership growingly concerned by endless economic and social problems. The second one is witnessing increasing episodes of censorship and hegemonic control over its intellectual circles. Third, there is the individual level of analysis, which forces us to acknowledge that every single human life has a different weight in a world that is experiencing an alarming return of inequality, which is in turn widening the social and economic gap both between and within societies.
Hopefully, by unraveling the threads of Giulio Regeni’s death story, we will be able to shed light on both the political and the symbolic dimension that this episode has brought to the fore, and their intertwining, albeit dangerous, relation.

The international level

As for the international framework, it is quite easy to spot the political interests underpinning the different narrations provided, especially in the early aftermath of the finding of Regeni’s body, even for those not very familiar with the most recent history of both countries.

On the one hand, General al-Sisi has extensively taken advantage of the international community’s support to strengthen its control on the country’s inner flows of ideas. According to the most recent report by the al-Nader Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, only in 2015, 474 people have been killed by security forces in Egypt,[1] counting 640 cases of individual torture. In terms of censorship, the two cases of Ahmed Naji and Bassem Youssef are exemplary of the regime’s tactics to impose its own vision on the world, its own version of public morality, allegedly rooted in Islamic values, and its hegemonic control on cultural production. The first one, Ahmed Naji, an Egyptian author, was sentenced on February 21, 2016, to two years of prison for “sexually explicit” writings.[2] The second one, Bassem Youssef, used to be the anchorman of one of the most popular satiric TV programs in Egypt, namely el-Barnameg, whose suspension was announced on June 2, 2014, after only 6 months from the military coup that brought General Abd el-Fattah al-Sisi to power.

On the other hand, the international community closed an eye on the restrictions imposed by the new military regime because al-Sisi remains a fundamental ally in the strategy to defeat Islamic extremism in the Middle Eastern area, an overriding concern after the establishment of Daesh and its expansion in the neighboring, chaotic, and war-torn Libya. Nonetheless, nobody would think that this circle of internal violence and repression on the part of the Egyptian regime would have had consequences on international expatriates in the country. The death of Giulio Regeni took everybody by surprise, given also the tight economic and diplomatic ties between Italy and Egypt.

However, the consequence of the current international situation is that the narrative of Regeni’s death is and will be affected first and foremost by the strategic significance of an ally like al-Sisi, who can function as a stronghold in the fight against the spread of Islamism and its armed version, jihadism, in the Middle East and North Africa region. These strategic considerations will likely weave their threads to produce an acceptable narration that would not damage the “supreme” interests of international security.[3] Nevertheless, the mobilization of a transnational academic class that is relentlessly asking for the truth and challenging governmental narration demonstrates how change can be sought inside the cultural hegemonic frame in society, being cultural hegemony that institutional mechanism that controls the flow of information, exercising a subtle and devious influence over the entire cultural apparatus in society in order to form and organize consent. The boundary-free academic class worldwide is uniting and asking for truth and justice in Regeni’s name.[4] But what is behind this transnational movement is much more than that. Not only is it aiming at disclosing the names of those responsible for the killing, but it symbolizes also the need to stabilize an increasingly insecure MENA region. Regeni’s death proves to the world that nations are not “bordered power containers,” to use Gellner’s definition,[5] but parts of the same interconnected system.

The national level

On a second level of analysis, the story of Giulio Regeni is embroidered by national internal dynamics peculiar to the two countries themselves. On the one hand, General al-Sisi is willing to demonstrate that the Mukhabarat, the infamous Egyptian military intelligence, is not responsible for the death and torture of the 28 year-old Cambridge PhD student. He rather prefers to blame a not-so-well specified Islamist organization for being the instigator of the crime, thereby implementing a scapegoat strategy to which Egyptians are well accustomed. This narrative in turn enables him to justify exceptional measures in terms of preserving national security against the terroristic threat, an old ploy which recalls al-Mubarak’s regime rhetoric and Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer. On the other hand, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi keeps on soliciting the Truth about Regeni’s death, without credibly convincing the general public about his good intentions on the matter.[6] Italy is the third international economic partner of Egypt, the first one among European countries, with more than €5 billion exchanged between the two countries in 2013.[7] It is sufficient to walk along the seaside “kurniche” in Alexandria (as it is called in Egyptian dialect) to get a sense of the intense economic relations between the two countries: one of the main buildings in Mahttat-el-raml, the main square of the Mediterranean city, is Alex Bank, a new Egyptian bank owned by the Italian company Intesa Sanpaolo, which dominates the entire city view from the seashore. Furthermore, the same day the body of Giulio Regeni was found dead, an Italian delegation led by Federica Guidi, the Italian Minister of Economic Development, was present in Cairo and immediately repatriated to allow for further investigations on the crime. Nonetheless, the mere presence of the delegation in Cairo is a sign of the intention by both parties not only to continue but also to further strengthen mutual economic ties.

So, unfortunately, the truth might have a cost, and both the Egyptian and Italian governments may be unwilling to accept the far-reaching consequences that the full disclosure of information about the case would bring about. The threads of Regeni’s story are interweaved with the national interests of both parties, and entangled with international ones, thus superimposing different narrative layers.

The individual level

As Rogers Brubaker recently wrote in his last book titled Grounds for Difference (2015), one of the most alarming trends emerging in our societies at present is the return of inequality based on difference. As Brubaker interestingly asserts, differences of race, gender, citizenship and have a “systematic bearing on inequality.”[8] The death of Giulio Regeni and the development of the case it started are a germane example of the systemic inequality experienced by people born in different parts of the world. The death of Giulio Regeni is a tragic event that, at the same time, sheds lights on the tight relationship between difference and inequality, showing how the former profoundly shapes the latter. On the individual level, then, the story of Giulio Regeni interweaves with the story of all the other victims of a Western-supported regime that puts into practice a harsh repression against any kind of opposition and is smashing the already-weak civil society in the country, making the glorious days of the thawra of 2011 a distanced and blurred memory.

The death of Giulio Regeni is likely to remain an unsolved mystery or, alternatively, a story comprising and satisfying all the narratives we have encountered in this short article will be eventually officialized, preserving supra-national, national and inequality-based interests on both shores of the Mediterranean. The story we will be offered will be a story produced inside cultural hegemonic circles, whose main aim is that of reinforcing existing social structures, maintaining power, reiterating the status quo. Italy cannot pay the consequences of being forced to cut or limit its economic ties with Egypt. Egypt cannot risk losing the already compromised credibility of its political system. The international community at large cannot be deprived of its most trustworthy ally in a strategic region where containment of the jihadi threat is considered the most pressing point on the international agenda. In addition, the visibility given to Giulio Regeni’s death brought to the fore also the terrible silent deaths of hundreds of Egyptians, mostly activists, doctors, members of the civil society, whose main guilt has been to try and activate a counter-discourse in order to provide an alternative to the oppression and wrongdoings of the regime, notwithstanding whether it has been done in the name of any kind of Islam or civic perspective.

Giulio Regeni’s death is an uncomfortable death for many. But, first and foremost, it is a pain in the neck for anyone who has the power and the will to provide his own version of the truth. Giulio Regeni is the symbol of the supremacy of menial interests over human life, of the cunning mechanisms of those who claim to have authority to speak for the truth, of the inequality based on difference with which human lives are treated and classified, not only during life but also after death, of the power of institutionalized narratives that aim at taming alternative paths, stories, lives.

The threads of Giulio Regeni’s story will be arbitrarily interwoven to meet hegemonic needs. Our unraveling of those threads will keep Regeni’s alternative narrative alive in the collective memory. This is at the heart of dissent.

Valentina Cantori

Master’s Degree in Culture and Languages for Communication and International Cooperation (University of Milan)


[1] “Nader Center: Egypt’s security forces killed 474 people in 2015,” Mada Masr, January 10, 2016.

[2] Sirgany, Sarah, and Capelouto, Susanna. “Egyptian author gets two-year prison term for ‘sexually explicit’ writings,” CNN, February 22, 2016.

[3] Le Vine, Mark. “An Italian Student’s Death in Egypt and Now we Care?,” Al-Jazeera, February 15, 2016.

[4] Allievi, Stefano, Perché noi intellettuali chiediamo giustizia per Regeni, February 17, 2016. Retrieved from:

[5] Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.

[6] Giulio Regeni, Renzi: “Egitto amico, ma non accetteremo una verità raccogliticcia,” Il Fatto Quotidiano, February 21, 2016.

[7] Colombo, Matteo. “Italia-Egitto. Rischi e opportunità di una relazione strategica,” ISPI, November 24, 2014.

[8] Brubaker, Rogers. Grounds for Difference, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

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