As the Pope flew back from Egypt where he met General al-Sisi, the very first thing he was asked about on the in-flight press conference was the case of Giulio Regeni, the young Italian graduate student who was tortured to death in Egypt last year. Major questions have been raised about the involvement of the Egyptian authorities.
Before the trip, the parents of the murdered man met the Pope and appealed to him to raise the matter with General al-Sisi. Mr and Mrs Regeni are still hoping to find out what really happened to their son. They are not alone in this, as many in Italy have been mobilised in a campaign called “Truth for Giulio Regeni”. Given the high standing of the Pope in Italy, it was naturally hoped that he would help with this objective.
The Pope said nothing concrete about the Regeni case when asked, except to confirm that he had raised the matter with the General, and that the Vatican is taking some as yet unspecified steps. When the Pope goes abroad, in Italian eyes at least, he goes as an ambassador of Italy: if he has nothing to show for his meeting with the General with regard to the Regeni case, then Italians, and others, will be disappointed.
Giulio Regeni is just one of many people who disappear in Egypt, and his case is emblematic of all those for whom justice and truth are denied. The Guardian reported in January that “Regeni’s murder has come to be seen as symbolic of Egypt’s high number of forced disappearances, widely associated with torture, where victims are held in secret without access to their family or lawyers.” Nearly 800 cases were reported over the course of a year.
All this highlights the difficulty the Pope faces in meeting with dictators like General al-Sisi. The General may be a friend of the Egyptian Christians, indeed their last best chance of survival, but he is, like so many rulers in the Middle East, not a savoury character. As John Allen observes: “The only person who took more pleasure in the trip than the Pope may actually have been Sisi, who comes away with a strong papal endorsement of his anti-terrorism agenda and little that could be interpreted as criticism of his record on human rights and political dissent.”
Nothing will bring Giulio Regeni back to life; but to know just what happened to him, and who was responsible for his death, might be some comfort to his parents. On this matter General al-Sisi can surely help. If he does not, then the Pope’s goodwill towards to General will look misplaced, and the Vatican’s diplomatic overtures to this particular dictator most unfortunate.