Human rights campaigners around the world celebrated when security agencies in Cairo released three leading members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) on December 3. Although they were not formally charged during the fortnight they spent in detention, they were accused of spreading fake news, inciting protest, and belonging to a terrorist organization for their work in monitoring unauthorized detentions, prison conditions, and death sentences in the country. An Egyptian terrorism court froze their assets immediately after their release, underlining that the EIPR case clearly remains very much open.
This contrasts with the announcement by Egyptian prosecutors on December 1 that they were “temporarily” closing their investigation into the horrific torture and murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni in Cairo nearly five years ago. After facing a series of false trails laid by Egyptian security agencies intended “to throw off the investigation,” as Italian prosecutor Sergio Colaiocco stated last year, five Egyptian security officers who have been identified as the probable perpetrators may still be put on trial in absentia in Italy.
Evasion, disinformation, and other delaying tactics are the stock-in-trade of the Egyptian authorities whenever they are faced with external pressures to undertake meaningful economic, legislative, administrative, and human rights reforms, and are standard behavior for the security agencies. But what has been especially striking about the Regeni case all along is the reluctance of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to do more to distance his administration from the crime and reduce reputational damage abroad.
In theory, Sisi may have taken this stance because the chain of command led from the perpetrators to the president’s office, if not to him personally, in much the same way as Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul in October 2018* by a hit squad dispatched by Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman’s closest security advisor and aide-de-camp and the deputy intelligence chief. The latter two men and eighteen other Saudi security officers are also being tried in absentia in Turkey. But Regeni posed absolutely no threat warranting presidential attention. It is highly unlikely that Sisi or his entourage were aware of the Italian’s presence in Egypt, or even of his disappearance, until it was picked up by international media.
A more likely interpretation is that Sisi’s handling of the Regeni case was, and remains, a function of the president’s relationship with principal state agencies on whose support his grip on power depends. By the time it became evident that the Egyptian authorities had a serious problem on their hands requiring the president’s intervention, the security services, the state prosecution service, and allied media had already denied any knowledge or involvement.
Sisi was put in an awkward position from the outset, as taking appropriate action meant backtracking from his own government’s official narrative. Further official claims put out by the security agencies blaming a criminal gang for Regeni’s abduction and murder had little credibility outside Egypt. However, their real purpose may instead have been to make a walk-back all the more embarrassing for the president. By raising the political price of taking action, these agencies protected themselves.
Could Sisi have acted more decisively if he had really wanted to? He is the most powerful figure in Egypt today, but he must also continually navigate and negotiate relations with the institutional sectors that form his governing coalition—especially the armed forces, the Interior Ministry and its affiliated security agencies, and the judiciary. Indeed he is also vulnerable to the competitive dynamics within each of these sectors and the turf battles between them.
On the one hand, Sisi can, and does, manipulate rivalries between various cliques for his own advantage. The president’s leverage is significant. As a former head of Military Intelligence, he came to office knowing, figuratively, where many of the bodies are buried, and as president he also controls the General Intelligence Directorate (which reports directly to him) and the Administrative Monitoring Authority headed and staffed almost entirely by retired and active-duty officers, both of which are deployed to intimidate and punish.
On the other hand, playing bureaucratic cliques and interest groups off against each other involves more than leverage. It also requires that Sisi offer each something in return, in order to keep them all onside. The rewards they receive may be material, such as opportunities for commercial activity, or political, such as the institutional autonomy to do virtually whatever they want within their spheres of jurisdiction, which they jealously guard. There is no question that systematic human rights abuses are a structural feature of a highly authoritarian system and serve the Sisi administration overall. However, the particular form and manner in which they take place is shaped by the agendas of distinct branches, cliques, and even individual personnel in police and security agencies.
The lower-level autonomy that Sisi is compelled to allow these key state institutions places him in the position of another Arab dictator: Saddam Hussein. Between 1991 and 2003, the late Iraqi president persistently denied United Nations nuclear weapons inspectors access, even though verifying the absence of nuclear facilities and activities was a condition for relaxing the sweeping UN sanctions under which the country suffered. The cruel irony was that there was nothing to hide, as the nuclear program had been destroyed or dismantled. Yet, for Saddam Hussein, submitting to UN demands for access would have weakened his projection of power domestically and prompted challenges from within his regime.
Sisi's logic appears similar. He cannot allow himself to be seen by members of his governing coalition and their networks as acceding to a judicial request from a foreign government, especially one that can only end in severe penalties and a demotion in the internal pecking order. Unlike Saddam Hussein, Sisi does not face even a remotely credible threat of sanctions or any other kind of penalty, and so has even less of a reason to cooperate with the Italian judiciary’s requests.
If Egypt’s recent history is a guide, Sisi has every justification to believe, as his predecessors did, that foreign powers will always acquiesce in whatever the incumbent regime does in any sphere. The delaying tactics of the Egyptian authorities and security agencies only worked in the Regeni case, after all, because the Italian government allowed them to work.
* The date for the Khashoggi murder was corrected.