The New York Times reports: The target of the Egyptian police, that day in November 2015, was the street vendors selling socks, $2 sunglasses and fake jewelry, who clustered under the arcades of the elegant century-old buildings of Heliopolis, a Cairo suburb. Such raids were routine, but these vendors occupied an especially sensitive location. Just 100 yards away is the ornate palace where Egypt’s president, the military strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, welcomes foreign dignitaries. As the men hurriedly gathered their goods from mats and doorways, preparing to flee, they had an unlikely assistant: an Italian graduate student named Giulio Regeni.
He arrived in Cairo a few months earlier to conduct research for his doctorate at Cambridge. Raised in a small village near Trieste by a sales manager father and a schoolteacher mother, Regeni, a 28-year-old leftist, was enthralled by the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring. In 2011, when demonstrations erupted in Tahrir Square, leading to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, he was finishing a degree in Arabic and politics at Leeds University. He was in Cairo in 2013, working as an intern at a United Nations agency, when a second wave of protests led the military to oust Egypt’s newly elected president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, and put Sisi in charge. Like many Egyptians who had grown hostile to Morsi’s overreaching government, Regeni approved of this development. ‘‘It’s part of the revolutionary process,’’ he wrote an English friend, Bernard Goyder, in early August. Then, less than two weeks later, Sisi’s security forces killed 800 Morsi supporters in a single day, the worst state-sponsored massacre in Egypt’s history. It was the beginning of a long spiral of repression. Regeni soon left for England, where he started work for Oxford Analytica, a business-research firm.
From afar, Regeni followed Sisi’s government closely. He wrote reports on North Africa, analyzing political and economic trends, and after a year had saved enough money to start on his doctorate in development studies at Cambridge. He decided to focus on Egypt’s independent unions, whose series of unprecedented strikes, starting in 2006, had primed the public for the revolt against Mubarak; now, with the Arab Spring in tatters, Regeni saw the unions as a fragile hope for Egypt’s battered democracy. After 2011 their numbers exploded, multiplying from four to thousands. There were unions for everything: butchers and theater attendants, well diggers and miners, gas-bill collectors and extras in the trashy TV soap operas that played during the holy month of Ramadan. There was even an Independent Trade Union for Dwarfs. Guided by his supervisor, a noted Egyptian academic at Cambridge who had written critically of Sisi, Regeni chose to study the street vendors — young men from distant villages who scratched out a living on the sidewalks of Cairo. Regeni plunged into their world, hoping to assess their union’s potential to drive political and social change.
But by 2015 that kind of cultural immersion, long favored by budding Arabists, was no longer easy. A pall of suspicion had fallen over Cairo. The press had been muzzled, lawyers and journalists were regularly harassed and informants filled Cairo’s downtown cafes. The police raided the office where Regeni conducted interviews; wild tales of foreign conspiracies regularly aired on government TV channels. [Continue reading…]