Two days ago, Egyptian TV showed a video of Giulio Regeni, the young Italian PhD student who was tortured and killed a year ago in Cairo.
The video was taped a few days before he disappeared on January 25, 2016, only for his body to be found dumped on a highway, with signs of inhuman, brutal torture on it.
You can watch the video here.
A longer version with Italian subtitles is here.
For over a year I have seen Giulio’s still picture, read his published work, and learned about his character and his tragically short live.
But this is the first time I see him in action, so to speak. And to listen to his voice.
It is really heart breaking.
The video is a surreptitiously taped encounter with a man named Mohammed Abdullah, a street vendor whom Giulio was trying to assist in establishing an independent syndicate for street vendors.
The video, in which Giulio speaks in simple, but clear Arabic, shows Giulio informing Mohammed about a British agency to which he can apply for funds.
Mohammed then tells Giulio in no unclear terms that he needs the money for himself as his wife has cancer and his daughter needs to have an operation.
Giulio responds by saying that this is improper; that this is not his personal money; that Mohamed needs to apply officially for the funds, and even though the money won’t be enough (for the syndicate), he will do his best to help him.
We don’t know exactly what happened next. But there are three interpretations:
a. Mohammed was disappointed that he didn’t get the money, so he went to the police and reported Giulio for being a spy.
b. Mohamed had been suspicious of Giulio from the start (this was not their first meeting– they had met 5 times before), and decided to report him to the police as a spy.
c. Mohamed had already contacted the police and told them about his suspicions and they went along with the story, provided him with a secret camera (it is clear from the video that the recording was done with a secret camera), and told him to tape Giulio in order to frame him.
According to the Corriere della Sera, the date of the recoding is January 6, 2016, which raises serious questions. For last spring the Egyptian police admitted, after months of denial, that they did in fact have Giulio under surveillance; that they started watching him on January 7; that they did this for 3 days and then lost interest in him when they found out that he wasn’t a spy.
The question is: did Mohamed get the secret camera from the police? And if so, how come the recording took place on January 6, i.e. one day before the police say they got wind of him?
As serious as these questions are (for they poke even more holes in the Egyptian police’s version of the story), what the video shows is another tragic story.
It is a story of an encounter between two radically different worlds.
On the one hand, we see a young man, full of energy and enthusiasm, motivated by a deep desire to do good, going out of his way to help people he really doesn’t know, and to do all this out of a deep desire to be a responsible, upright citizen of the world.
Giulio is a young scholar who spent years studying Arabic and learning about Egypt and the Middle East, and rather than pursue his studies from the lofty towers of Cambridge, decided to go to Cairo in person, conduct tedious, laborious and dangerous field work, and in the process give back to the country he studies by helping the very people he was engaged with.
On the other hand, we have a sleazy, corrupt and flawed character who decided to mistrust the vulnerable foreigner who was trying to help him. Mohamed thought of Giulio as no more than a rich foreigner from whom he can embezzle money, or as an easy target who can be betrayed to the police in exchange for a handsome reward.
The contrast between the good that Giulio stands for and all the vile and evil that Mohamed is cannot be sharper.
And what makes this story much bigger than an encounter between two dramatically different personae on the polar ends of the moral spectrum is the existence of the Egyptian state, represented by the police and State Security, hovering above this fatal encounter.
For Mohamed’s actions would not have carried the heavy weight it did had he not believed and internalized the moronic official discourse of the state, repeated day after day, on official TV and state media warning “upright citizens” of foreigners who pretend to be innocent tourists, but who are really spies intent on undermining the country’s stability and conspiring to bring Egypt down.
You can watch one such ad here.
Worse still, is the endemic, persistent practice of the Egyptian police over decades and decades spying on their own citizens and, worse, hiring thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of citizens as snitches to report on each other.
The real culprit in this tragedy is indeed the Egyptian state. While we still have no conclusive evidence tying the police(or some other state agency) to the horrible torture that Giulio suffered from before his brutal death (“tortured like he was an Egyptian citizen,” in the memorable words of Giulio’s mother whom you can watch here: http://tinyurl.com/jujb4co), we do know that the Egyptian police have a corrosive, corrupting influence on society.
The systematic torture that one reads about taking place in Egyptian police stations; the longstanding policy of spying on private citizens and recording their private conversations that the state not only does not censure but seems to be publicly advocating; and, above all, the persistent practice of enmeshing multitudes of Egyptians in its web of deceit and hypocrisy by luring them to act as snitches — this is what lies behind this fatal encounter that was caught on tape and broadcast on Egyptian TV.
The Egyptian authorities might have hoped to show to the Italian investigating authorities and the enraged Italian public opinion that they are finally serious in getting to the bottom of this case. At the same time, they might have also intended to insinuate to their Egyptian audience that Giulio was, after all, a spy who was intent on bringing down the state–witness him talking in a broken Arabic about money, the Brits, a local NGO and street politics.
But in reality, the video only shows how upright and honorable Giulio really is, and how corrupt and corrupting the Egyptian state continues to be.
For years before 2016, every time I answered “From Italy” to the question “Where do you come from?”, Egyptians would cheer, smile and make jokes about soccer and how close Egypt and Italy were. Now I am received with complete silence. I wonder whether this is because people feel sorry or because they feel suspicious. I think for the second reason, as I never receive any “apology” or sympathy for what happened to Giulio Regeni, just silence.