By Declan Walsh and Elisabetta Povoledo – The New York Times
CAIRO — When an Egyptian student was arrested at the Cairo Airport recently, it was hardly an unusual event. Egypt’s security services routinely detain human rights defenders, lawyers, academics and other government critics, most of whom vanish into prison for years. Many complain of torture.
But the plight of this detainee, Patrick Zaki, 27, who works for a prominent Egyptian rights group, has received unusual international scrutiny thanks to an important difference: He was coming from Italy.
The University of Bologna, where Mr. Zaki was studying, took up his case, which became front-page news. Student demonstrations erupted in several cities, and Italian officials issued demands. The Italian mobilization was driven in large part by parallels with the case of Giulio Regeni, an Italian student who vanished in Cairo in January 2016 only to be found dead 10 days later, with signs of extensive torture.
Italians have been haunted by the fate of Mr. Regeni, 28, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge. A public clamor for the truth about his death, which was widely blamed on Egyptian security agents, has become a national preoccupation. It has been heightened by frustration with Egyptian officials, whom Italian prosecutors accuse of covering up the killing.
The arrest of Mr. Zaki triggered that lingering trauma.
“From an emotional point of view, a very deep wound in our country was reopened,” said Francesco Ubertini, rector of the University of Bologna.
The outcry in Italy reached the European Parliament, where its president, David Sassoli, joined calls for Mr. Zaki’s release. “I want to remind the Egyptian authorities that E.U. relations with third countries rely on respect for human and civil rights,” he said last week.
For the many Italians who have taken the case to heart, it offers a chance to succeed in pressuring Egypt where they failed with Mr. Regeni.
“Patrick risks the same fate as Giulio — we don’t want him to die,” Paola Pinna, a high school teacher, said at a candlelight vigil on Thursday in front of the Pantheon in Rome.
Protesters sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the resistance song “Bella Ciao,” and held up signs that read, “Free Patrick.” Nearby, a stencil on a wall depicted Mr. Regeni hugging Mr. Zaki. “This time, it will all work out,” the caption read.
In President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt, there is little guarantee of that.
Mr. Zaki was arrested on Feb. 7 as he returned for a short vacation from Bologna, where he had been studying on a scholarship for a master’s degree in gender studies. He was previously a researcher on gender rights at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a prominent rights group.
Officials from Egypt’s National Security Agency took Mr. Zaki to a detention center, where he was beaten and electrocuted, one of his lawyers, Hoda Nasrallah, said in an interview. Then he was transferred to a jail in his home, Mansoura, 60 miles north of Cairo, where interrogators say they confronted him with printouts from his Facebook account.
Mr. Zaki, who is due to appear in court on Saturday, faces five charges, including sedition, promoting terrorism and disrupting public order. As they did with Mr. Regeni, pro-state Egyptian news outlets have tried to smear Mr. Zaki’s reputation, condemning Rome’s interest in the case as a conspiracy to hurt Egypt.
Mr. Regeni’s parents, Paola and Claudio Regeni, saw similarities with their son’s case. In a plea to Italian and European leaders on Feb. 13, they said, “Patrick, just like Giulio, is a brilliant international student who deeply cares about inviolable human rights.”
“We hope that this time,” they added, “Italian and European institutions will be able to find the way to save this young international researcher’s life, not letting even just another hour go by.”
At the University of Bologna, where the senate passed a resolution calling for help for Mr. Zaki, Mr. Ubertini, the rector, cited a decree from 1155 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, also known as Frederick I, that protects students who come to Bologna.
By Friday, an online petition by Amnesty International Italia had collected more than 77,000 signatures, while another on change.org had 186,000 signatures.
Beleaguered Egyptian rights activists welcome the Italian clamor as a way of bringing new attention to growing repression in Egypt, where the security forces’ muzzling and mistreatment of the local news media is so commonplace that it rarely makes news abroad.
“So many people have been arrested that it’s difficult to keep track of everyone,” said Mohamed Lotfy of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. Mr. Lotfy’s wife, Amal Fathy, was imprisoned for seven months in 2018 after speaking out against sexual harassment on Facebook.
Many arrests occur at Cairo’s airport, where Egyptians studying or traveling abroad suddenly learn that they are wanted by the security services. In the past, researchers have been arrested on arrival from the United States, Germany and Britain. The governments of those countries have offered muted protest, if any at all.
Italy protested harder than most after the death of Mr. Regeni, withdrawing its ambassador from Cairo for 16 months and sending investigators to assist with the Egyptian investigation. Mr. el-Sisi has regularly promised Italian leaders that he will bring the perpetrators to justice, most recently during a meeting with Prime Minister Giuseppi Conte on Jan. 20.
Critics counter that Mr. el-Sisi could quickly obtain the truth by inquiring inside his own security services. In late 2018, Italian prosecutors said they had identified five Egyptians with the National Security Agency who were involved in Mr. Regeni’s death. None have been prosecuted in Egypt.
Mr. el-Sisi has dodged Western censure on his rights record by leveraging his economic and political muscle. He made arms deals with France worth $15 billion in 2018, according to E.U. figures, cooperates with Germany on stemming migration and runs one of the largest gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean with Italy’s state-owned energy giant, Eni.
Soon after Mr. Regeni’s death, the United States obtained intelligence that linked the killing to Egyptian intelligence. But President Trump, who last year referred to Mr. el-Sisi as “my favorite dictator,” has not pursued the issue.
One moderate exception to American silence on Egyptian abuses was the death in prison last month of Moustafa Kassem, an Egyptian-American citizen who was on a hunger strike in protest of what he called an unfair conviction. A State Department official called the death “needless, tragic and avoidable.”
For all its limits, foreign pressure is often the only hope for Egyptian detainees facing lengthy prison spells without trial, campaigners say.
“Once this phase has begun, the risk is that it will drag on,” said Riccardo Noury of Amnesty International Italia. “And the longer it continues, the more difficult it is to get a result.”
For Italians, the fusion of the two cases had rekindled hopes of reviving the stalled Regeni investigation.
“I can assure you that every time we see el-Sisi,” Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told the daily newspaper La Repubblica recently, “the first question that both I and Conte put forward is the truth on Regeni.”
On Jan. 15, Egypt’s prosecutor general, Hamada El-Sawy, said he had appointed a new team to investigate the Regeni killing.
Rita Monticelli, one of Mr. Zaki’s lecturers at the University of Bologna, said she had learned that he was concerned about the possibility of losing his scholarship.
He need not worry, she added: “Our hope is that he returns here.”
Declan Walsh reported from Cairo, and Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome. Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo.