Shame And Cynicism, When An Italian Is Killed In Cairo

The streets of Cairo
The streets of Cairo
Isabel Esterman
CAIRO â€" I did not know Giulio Regeni, but I could have. The earnest, affable face staring out of his photographs is reminiscent of any number of the trickle of European researchers and activists who pass through Cairo and want to meet in downtown dive bars to talk about the condition of the workers and the economy. There is the scantest degree of separation between his life in Cairo and mine, a thread of mutual acquaintances.

It goes without saying, I suppose, that his death has shaken me deeply.

To live in this city, in these times, requires the ability to metabolize a steady diet of poison. Like the immune system grows accustomed to drinking tainted water, the mind adapts to and normalizes ever-greater levels of horror â€" violence, torture, mass killings. It is astonishing what people can get used to.

Sometimes the body rebels, the mind cracks. I have always liked to think of myself as articulate, but have recently developed a habit â€" a tic â€" of trailing off in the middle of sentences. An unexpected knock on the door in the evening paralyzes me with fear.

All of us have bad days and good days. We cling to gallows humor and illusions. One of my most desperately cherished illusions is that, although I may stick out more and attract more attention, as a white foreigner from a rich country, I am protected from the very worst of what Egypt has to offer. Prison and deportation â€" perhaps â€" but not torture and murder.

My own shame

They beat him, burned him, the Italian authorities say. They ripped out his nails and broke his neck. It was a slow death.

I would very much like to believe that “they” are criminals, that Giulio’s murder was random; or that, as some of the local media is insinuating, Giulio was involved in something shady or sleazy and somehow brought his death upon himself. It would be a comfort to me, an illusion I could cling to.

But it is too hard to believe.

I can justify the depth of my reaction in a thousand ways, but I am also ashamed of it. I must admit, if I am to be honest, that I have not reacted as strongly or as personally to similar stories when they happen to Egyptians.

I am not alone in this. Reports indicating that hundreds of Egyptians have disappeared, that at least 14 detainees have died in custody in a single police station, are barely footnotes in most of the international press.

Some of this can be explained away by the common tendency to care more about our own countrymen. In 2006, I was living in the Philippines, getting my news from local media. In my memory, the main characters in the war that broke out in the Middle East that summer were not Hezbollah or Israel, but the Filipino migrant workers whose employers took their passports and left them trapped in a war zone. By which I mean to say that perspective, attention, is not always about power and privilege.

I am not Italian, though, nor are most of the journalists covering the story or the audiences following it. Yes, Giulio was foreign, but so are the African migrants shot by the military in the desert, or the Palestinians killed at the border. The ugly truth is that the world cares more because he was white and from a rich country, part of the class of people that is supposed to be insulated from the brutality that underpins the security and prosperity of the West. So we are all shocked.

A new Egypt?

I have nothing but sympathy for Giulio’s friends and family. I cannot imagine what they are going through. The idea of my own parents having to bear such news makes my hands shake and my stomach heave.

Regeni, 28, was working on his PhD at the University of Cambridge

I hope Giulio gets a state funeral, and that public pressure forces something akin to a real investigation into his death. I hope this case helps to shine a bright light into the dungeons in the foundations of the “New Egypt.” I hope it blows the whole festering mess open.

But I am disgusted by the expressions of shock and outrage from Italian officials. These people get newspapers. They have diplomats and intelligence officers in Egypt. They are not naïve. They understand the dirty politics, the abuse, the broken bodies and shattered lives that keep Egypt “open for business.” They know what is going on in this country, and until now they have not appeared to care.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hailed Egyptian President Abdel Fattha al-Sisi as “a great leader” who can “save” Egypt. Italy is one of Egypt’s most important trading partners, with annual bilateral trade at around $6 billion and rising. Among other things, between 2011 and 2013, Italy sold Egypt more than half a billion euros worth of guns and bullets.

Even as Giulio’s battered corpse was lying anonymously somewhere in the city, a trade delegation led by Italian officials was rubbing shoulders with the Cairo elite â€" a visit that was terminated only when news of Giulio’s death went public.

Italian officials want their gas deals and their anti-terror coalition, and they have always known it has a price. They just expected that somebody else â€" somebody else’s children â€" would pay it.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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