Trying to understand the Arab world is like reading a long and rich novel. Firm fact on which to base informed opinion is hard to come by. These countries are in the grip of the security forces and centrally controlled media, with the result that everyone has his story and there’s no objective way of checking what they say. Western diplomats and journalists tend to report as though it were fact what they are told, which is why we remain so credulous and ill-informed about Arab reality.
Giulio Regeni was a 28-year-old Italian at Cambridge University writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Egyptian trade unions and therefore temporarily living in Cairo. A researcher in his position has to get the facts straight, and he paid with his life for it. Regeni was on his way to meet a friend when he disappeared. A witness claims that he saw Regeni being led away by Egyptian security agents. Be that as it may, Regeni’s corpse was discovered on a road in a Cairo suburb. Half-naked, he had been gruesomely tortured to death.
The Egyptian authorities of course have their stories and their fluent condolences. Regeni turns out to have had his story too, and it was dangerous. Under a pseudonym he was publishing articles in Il Manifesto, the Italian Communist paper. That was quite enough to mark him down as a spy. I couldn’t help recalling the case of David Holden. An Arabist and Middle East correspondent for the Sunday Times, he was in Cairo in 1977 to report Anwar Sadat’s peace-making with Israel. A witness then said he had seen men in three white Fiats abduct Holden and his possessions were indeed found in these abandoned cars. His corpse showed that he too had been tortured to death. One story at the time was that he had been a British intelligence agent; another story was that he worked for the CIA; and a third story was that the CIA had asked the Egyptians to kill him, though why and what for was left unspoken.
It is safe to assert that Regeni’s murder will slowly vanish into fable and lying like Holden’s murder. Control is continuous, and fear always serves its purpose, especially when the dead can be called agents of a foreign power, or kuffars as we are now supposed to think of ourselves.