When the battered body of a Cambridge PhD student was found outside Cairo, Egyptian police claimed he had been hit by a car, notes Alexander Stille. Then they said he was the victim of a robbery. Then they blamed a conspiracy against Egypt. But in a digital age, it’s harder than ever to get away with murder, he writes in a must-read analysis for The Guardian.
Giulio Regeni (left) was engaged in participatory research on independent labour unions – “a particularly sensitive topic in Egypt under the Sisi government, because unions were seen as a key galvanizing force in the 2011 revolution,” Stille observes:
Traditionally, labour unions were government-run – more a means of controlling workers than representing their interests. The first independent trade union was formed in 2009, but the movement truly took flight after Tahrir Square. A thousand independent labour unions sprouted up after the fall of Mubarak and, within days of the 2011 revolution, the first federation of independent unions was formed. Many democracy advocates in and outside Egypt, including Giulio Regeni and his Cambridge supervisor, the Egyptian political scientist Maha Abdelrahman, regarded the independent trade union movement as a positive development, with the potential to strengthen civil society, democratic participation and workers’ rights – all things that seem threatening to a military regime determined to repress autonomous sources of power.
In the course of his research Regeni wrote an article which “ends with a few sentences that look like fighting words,” notes Stille:
“In the repressive context of the Sisi government, the fact that there are popular and spontaneous initiatives that break the wall of fear is significant and represent in and of themselves an important push for change. To challenge the state of emergency, the government’s appeals to stability and social harmony in the name of the ‘war on terrorism’, means today, even indirectly, to challenge the very basis on which this regime bases its existence and its repression of civil society.”