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From Giulio to Ahmed: Why grassroots solidarity in Europe is essential to end brutal repression in Egypt

A brutally repressive regime that came to power through a military coup against an elected president, and inaugurated its reign with the largest massacre of civilians in Egyptian modern history, has been sustained by enormous arms sales and investments from Europe. On the one hand, European governments have willfully ignored the Egyptian regime’s grave violations of human rights in exchange for a counter-productive cooperation in the Global War on Terror and the policing of migration from Africa to Europe. The Egyptian regime on the other hand, has bought European silence and complicity with billions of dollars’ worth of deals in mega investment projects and arms purchases. An increasingly suffocated local civil society, international rights groups, journalists and analysts have reported extensively on the situation in Egypt and have exposed Europe’s lethal foreign policy. Yet, even after persistent news of arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances and deaths in custody, it is still business as usual with Egypt. Even more, European states are consolidating their friendship with the Egyptian regime both in material and symbolic forms, further boosting its legitimacy and impunity from an endless series of crimes.

On February 1st2021, Ahmed Samir Santawy, a 29 year-old Egyptian researcher and graduate student at Vienna’s Central European University (CEU), entered a National Security Agency office only to vanish. A week earlier, while Ahmed was spending part of his vacation on the Red Sea, security forces raided his family home in Cairo and searched through family belongings. They told his parents that Ahmed is obliged to report at the National Security Agency (NSA) as soon as he’s back in Cairo. Responding to this demand and to a subsequent one for interrogation, Ahmed entered the NSA premise. He was forcibly disappeared for five days during which he was blindfolded and repeatedly hit in the face. When he finally appeared at the State Security Prosecution, he was charged with joining a terrorist group and publishing false news on social media. The National Security Prosecution ordered him detained on remand. Two weeks later, his detention pending investigation was renewed without his or his lawyers’ presence, and the prosecution added a new accusation to his case; that of funding a terrorist group. He was then held in solitary confinement for thirty-eight days without the ability to see his family.  

Ahmed is not the first Egyptian scholar studying abroad to be arrested upon his return home, slapped with similar absurd charges and thrown in jail. Walid al-Shobaky, an Egyptian PhD student at the University of Washington, was forcibly disappeared in May 2018 for four days, following a meeting he had with an Egyptian university professor for research purposes. He later appeared at the NSA prosecution and was charged with joining a terrorist organization as well.

Last year, Patrick George Zaki, a University of Bologna graduate student, was also arrested at Cairo International Airport upon his return to spend his winter vacation at home. He was then held incommunicado for twenty-four hours, during which he was beaten and electrocuted, before appearing at the public prosecutor’s office in his hometown of Mansoura. He was charged with spreading false news and calling for unauthorized protests. To this day, Patrick remains on remand detention pending investigation, and has completed more than thirteen months in jail, in which he has come to suffer health problems due to sleeping on a concrete floor.

Endless detention and lethal prison conditions: purging all possibilities of dissent 

Remand or pre-trial detention today in Egypt really means prolonged, and endlessly renewable detention without access to trial. A 2013 law amendment extended the lawful period of pre-trial detention to two years. Yet, the detention of many political prisoners has exceeded this “legal” limit. Moreover, upon the end of the two-year legal period, many prisoners find themselves charged again before they step out of state custody, disappearing from the police station they were supposed to be released from, re-appearing at the NSA prosecution and ordered detained again for a new two-year term. This systematic practice has come to be labeled as tadweer, i.e. “recycling” the prisoners from one case to another to prevent them from being released. In this way, thousands of political prisoners simply have no hope to exit prison. That’s why the arrest of Ahmed, and the continued detention of Patrick and thousands of others is extremely worrying. Egyptian prisons have become places you go in and rarely get out from.

Others receive long prison sentences after they spend already lengthy periods in pre-trial detention, such as the researcher and investigative journalist Ismail al-Iskandarani, who was arrested in November 2015 by the NSA at Hurghada airport upon his return from Berlin. He was jailed pending investigation for a period exceeding the two-year limit and later sentenced by a military court to ten years in prison. Ismail’s crime was his research into the Egyptian state’s security policy in Northern Sinai. A 2015 petition for his release, launched by forty prominent scholars from around the world and signed by hundreds others, described Ismail as “one of Egypt’s brightest young researchers”.

I have cited here the better-known cases of scholars and researchers in Egyptian jails who are affiliated with Western educational institutions. Their stories are widely known today partly thanks to the solidarity campaigns carried out by their colleagues and mentors in Europe and the US. But added to the rest of the incarcerated scholars and journalists, they still make up a tiny proportion of the thousands of prisoners of conscience lingering in Egyptian jails (rights groups put the figure at 60,000 political prisoners, several years ago), or the forcibly disappeared (2,811 documented cases between July 2013 and June 2016 alone).

This massive scale of arrests and prolonged incarcerations is compounded with a systematic practice of torture and with lethal imprisonment conditions that have led to a spike in the number of deaths in custody (due mainly to deliberate medical negligence, but also unsanitary conditions, the use of indefinite solitary confinements and torture). Rights groups estimate that between 2013 and 2019, at least 600 inmates have died in custody. The most notable case being that of former president Mohamed Morsi, who collapsed during his trial in June 2019 from a heart attack, aged sixty-seven. Throughout his six years behind bars, he was kept in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours a day, forced to sleep on a cold concrete floor, and denied access to lifesaving medical care for his diabetes and blood pressure. As I write these lines today, I learn of the 11thcase of death in custody in the month of February 2020 alone.

The gearing of all state institutions including the judiciary toward the elimination of any possibility of dissent—no matter how hypothetical—has become everyday reality for Egyptians. Many of us only hope that this savagery may be carrying the seeds of its own destruction. But the frightful truth is, it can last for decades if Western powers continue to boost and legitimize it. 

European investments in dictatorship: Giulio Regeni and the price of Italy’s arms trade  

One would think that after an Italian citizen was subjected to the Egyptian regime’s savagery, Italy would reconsider its close cooperation with Egypt. Giulio Regeni, a 28 year-old Italian PhD student, moved to Cairo in 2015 to work on his dissertation on Egyptian trade unions for the University of Cambridge. On January 25th2016, Giulio was abducted as he headed to a friend’s birthday party. Nine days later, his badly mutilated body was found in a ditch by the side of a Cairo highway. He was so extensively tortured that his mother later said she could only recognize him by the “tip of his nose”. His neck was broken, his wrist, toes, fingers and teeth shattered, initials were carved on his body, and his skin was badly burned and bruised.

After almost five years of investigations by the Italian authorities—heavily obstructed by their Egyptian counterparts—Rome prosecutors charged four high-ranking Egyptian officials in Giulio’s murder, including one accused of grievous bodily harm. But the Egyptian state denied these officials’ involvement, insisted that the perpetrators are still unknown, and declared the case closed. These statements blatantly contradicted Egypt’s earlier attempts to cover-up the crime by simply accusing an alleged gang of kidnappers of murdering Giulio. The Ministry of Interior declared, in March 2016, that it had shot dead the gang’s five members while they were riding a minivan on the outskirts of Cairo. The cover-up story was already so starkly cooked up, which became evident when Italian investigations found that some of the killed suspects were not even in Cairo at the time of Giulio’s disappearance. Murder upon murder, the Egyptian security apparatus steps up repression to evade scrutiny. 

Instead of making its economic cooperation and arms sales to Egypt conditional upon justice for Giulio, and upon an improvement in the regime’s human rights record, Italy has been reluctant to concede its position as Egypt’s biggest trading partner in Europe (with nearly $6 billion of sales in 2015). During Giulio’s disappearance, and while the Italian ambassador was pleading with the Egyptian authorities to find him, Italy’s investment minister flew to Cairo with thirty Italian executives, hoping to strike deals in construction, energy and the arms trade. Italy’s state-controlled energy company, Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi (Eni) had announced in 2015 the discovery of a major gas field in Egypt, and invested more than $10 billion in the country. Beside Eni, most of the largest Italian companies continue doing their business with Egypt, with billions of dollars’ worth of investments. 

On its part, the Egyptian regime has resorted to a consistent policy of entrenching itself in the global financial system to implicate international actors in regime repression. It does so through an increased reliance on external loans to finance mega infrastructure projects and arms sales; the ramping up of arms deals; and the heightened recourse to foreign direct investment, especially in the oil and gas sector. In this way, the Egyptian regime ensures that no conditions will be put on the bilateral table, should European voters question their governments’ support for Egypt.

This is why Eni’s chief executive was personally involved in talks with Egypt following Giulio’s murder and repeatedly assured the Italian public and rights groups that the Egyptian authorities were “putting in maximum effort” to find the killers, in an attempt to close the case. The company’s internal security division collaborated closely with Italian Intelligence service, and the latter’s officials were even suspected of brokering an interview between the Italian newspaper La Repubblica and Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, just six weeks after Giulio’s death, in which Sisi promised to find the culprits! This is a case in point for how the European public is misinformed by their own profiteers and governments for the purpose of perpetuating the flow of cash and lucrative investments from Egypt.

A year after Giulio’s murder, Rome appointed a new ambassador to Egypt, and to this day, the Italian foreign minister refuses to recall him. Even now that the perpetrators from within the Egyptian security apparatus have been identified and formally charged, Italy is still busy boosting its economic, financial and military cooperation with Egypt, the latest indication of which was the sale of two frigates by the state-controlled shipbuilder Fincantieri worth $1.2 billion. The frigates were negotiated in July 2020, alongside a much larger potential weapons deal that is estimated to be worth between €9 and €10 billion. If signed, this arms deal would be the largest arms purchase in Egypt’s history and one of the largest sales by Italy since World War II. Many Italians have described the deal as “shameful” given that justice for the murder of an Italian citizen was never obtained. 

European arms sale race in the name of fighting terrorism 

Competing in the arms sale race, France has significantly boosted its sales to Egypt since Sisi’s rise to power officially in the name of the fight against terrorism. According to a report by the International Federation for Human Rights (fidh), at least eight French companies have sold weapons and surveillance equipment to Egypt. These included weapons such as frigates, gunboats, Rafale fighter planes, armored vehicles, bombs, air-to-air missiles, cruise missiles, and surface to air missiles. But the deals also include weaponry for use in urban repression and wide population surveillance, such as light and small caliber weapons, technology for individual surveillance, mass interception, personal data collection and crowd control. 

Moreover, after the Rabaa massacre on 14 August 2013 in which Egyptian security forces opened live fire on peaceful protesters killing at least a thousand of them, France continued to authorize armor deliveries to Egypt. In fact, France authorized the delivery of the very Renault Trucks Defense armored vehicles which were used in the massive bloodshed. This, despite an August 2013 EU decision to suspend export licenses to Egypt for equipment that could be used for domestic repression. Furthermore, as the fidh report shows, the French Interministerial Commission of Dual-Use Goods determined that the company Nexa Technologies did not need to apply for a license to export highly intrusive surveillance systems to Egypt—against existing EU regulations—which made it possible for the material to be delivered to the Egyptian army intelligence services.

A few days after the Italian prosecutor pressed charges against the Egyptian agents, Sisi went to Paris to meet French officials and the CEOs of French arms manufacturers (including Dassault Aviation and Naval Group)  “to discuss ways of bolstering cooperation”. Macron held a Cavalry parade through Paris for Sisi, before he received him at the Élysée Palace. His excessive hospitality for the dictator was repeatedly aired on Egyptian television to boost the regime’s legitimacy. To make matters worse, Macron took this chance to grant Sisi the “Legion of Honor”, France’s highest order of merit. 

During the same visit, the French president blatantly announced that he will not condition the future sale of French arms to Egypt on respect for human rights, because he did not want to weaken Cairo’s ability to counter terrorism in the region, hence giving a powerful blank check to the Egyptian regime to continue its crimes against the Egyptian people. To conclude a shameful show of support and praise to the dictator, the French daily Le Figaro published on its front page a long interview with Sisi, in which the latter reassured the French public that Egypt and France were confronting terrorism, and “struggling together on many fronts”. Sisi also denied the detention of thousands of prisoners of conscience, arguing that his regime is balancing well “the rights and duties of citizens” with the necessity to combat terrorism. The chilling fact that Le Figaro is owned by the very Dassault Group that sells arms to Sisi explains the efforts it put to whitewash the dictator’s crimes in French public opinion.

As for Germany, Egypt is one of the largest importers of its manufactured arms and weaponry. Last November, Germany approved the sale of a naval arms package to Egypt worth €130 million, including nine patrol boats and a coastal defense ship, to add to the ongoing sale of German-made submarines since 2018. UK arms firms also count Egypt as a major client, and UK trade ministry’s unit of Defense and Security Exports designates Egypt as a “key market,” with figures showing a sharp increase in weapons and controlled military hardware sales in recent years, including components for combat aircraft, machine guns, assault rifles, electronic warfare equipment, crowd control ammunition, and tear gas/irritant ammunition, used to suppress protests in Egypt. 

Besides the obvious motive of profiteering from military dictatorships, massive sales of arms to Egypt are driven by Europe’s interest in the maintenance of security and stability in the region against terrorism. Yet, brutal dictatorships are never a force of security or stability. In fact, maintaining “business as usual” with such a repressive regime is counterproductive to the very goal of European cooperation. Heavy-handed state repression, the stifling of civil society and opposition political forces is sure to lead to a shared conviction that change and justice may only come through violence, providing justification for hardliners and fomenting further conflict and instability. Moreover, the regime has used the “War on Terror”-license to justify harrowing abuses: thousands of arrests are routinely followed by “terrorism”-related charges and thousands of extrajudicial killings have been carried out in the name of the anti-terrorist fight (at least 3000 since 2013). Such practices are not only unjust, but they are also highly ineffective in actually combating terrorism. This is because the regime’s security system remains geared towards the repression of innocent civilians and the policing of free expression rather than developing a better understanding of the sources and mechanisms of actual terrorist activities and the capacity to fight them. Indeed, since Sisi’s coup in July 2013, terrorist attacks targeting army checkpoints, state officials, foreign institutions, the Coptic minority and even a Sufi mosque have actually dramatically increased.

Supporting Sisi to curb migration: a failed European investment 

On their part, European states have been quick to take up Sisi’s tempting offers for massive direct investments in Egypt. To cite only the German example, a mega-project worth €8 billion was signed between Siemens and the Egyptian government to construct three power plants. To finance the Siemens construction, Egypt secured loans worth €4.1 billion in 2015, organized by three German banks. This is the largest contract in Siemens’ history, signed with a military dictatorship ruling over a brutalized and exploited workforce, kept silent and excluded from all venues of political participation. To inaugurate the project in 2017, Chancellor Angela Merkel dined with Sisi by the pyramids.

For Europe, large investments with Sisi’s regime also serve to guarantee Egypt’s cooperation in the fight against illegal immigration. In September 2018, Austria’s federal chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, joined the then president of the European council, Donald Tusk, in a visit to Egypt, in which they obtained Sisi’s reassurances that Egypt will continue to prevent refugees from reaching Europe via sea or land. The two men praised Sisi, and Kurz described the Egyptian regime as “efficient” in keeping migrants from reaching Europe. Three months later, as Austria was following suit in the scramble for investments with Egypt; Kurz invited Sisi to participate in the High-Level Forum Africa-Europe in Vienna during which the latter met with several Austrian officials and investors and signed ten Memoranda of Understanding and cooperation agreements. It remains to be seen whether the Austrian government will consider backing away from any of these deals to pressure for the release of CEU’s Masters student.

Yet, the authoritarian system that this repression seeks to perpetuate creates the very socio-economic and political problems that drive emigration. The regime’s economic policy has relied heavily on loans to finance mega-infrastructure projects, and on the use of tax revenues for loan and interest payments, which has led to a transfer of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the creditors, both foreign and domestic. This is compounded by a dramatic cut in subsidies, and the use of a regressive tax structure, which heightened economic disparities and caused higher levels of social deprivation. Poverty rates have jumped, and the World Bank reported that 9.8 million Egyptians fell into poverty in the span of five years, from 2012-2017. The effects of poverty are amplified by the erosion of state social spending, which has deprived a population of more than a 100 million from access to health care and proper education.

This situation is bound to worsen the problem of “illegal” immigration to Europe, especially combined with the blocking of the formation of independent professional and worker unions or any channels of real political participation, and in light of the heightened violence bred by repression and accumulated weaponry. Rather than pouring arms and investment agreements in the hands of criminal dictators that impoverish and brutalize their population, in exchange for the policing of coastal waters, a foreign policy that opposes—or at least does not directly contribute to—the crushing of internal democratic forces in Egypt, is the only way to true development and stability in the region.  

The European states’ approach to the problems of terrorism and immigration have therefore not only been counter-productive but also amount to deliberate complicity with the Egyptian regime’s crimes against people and students like Ahmed. We call on citizens of the European Union to stand in solidarity with the people of Egypt, and to demand from their governments a principled foreign policy that does not prioritize economic and strategic gains over the right to life, freedom and social justice for all peoples. Your solidarity is essential to end the brutal dictatorship in Egypt, because in an age of global financial capitalism, our struggles are bound to be as transnational as the deadly forces of greed and oppression.

By Shalabeyya; a scholar, mother and artist from Egypt.