CAIRO: Under scrutiny in Europe over its handling of investigations into the torture death of an Italian student in Cairo, Egyptian authorities sought to deflect attention Thursday toward the fate of a British-Egyptian man who died in a London fire.
The case of 21-year-old Sherif Adel Makar Habib appeared on the front pages of many Egyptian newspapers, after officials from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s office, the foreign ministry and the ministry for expatriates called for an investigation into the death.
The diplomatic moves are the latest attempt by Egypt to gain leverage over its critics, after several countries criticized its investigation into the death of doctoral student Giulio Regeni, who disappeared while police were out in force to prevent demonstrations in January. His mangled corpse was found dumped by the side of the road ten days later, heavily beaten and covered with cigarette burns.
Pro-government al-Watan led with a story on Habib on Thursday, under the headline “Sharif is like Regeni.” And later in the day, the prosecutor general’s office announced that it was ordering an investigation into the Habib’s killing as well of that of another Egyptian citizen it said had been found dead in the United States and whose body bore marks of torture.
El-Sissi’s office on Tuesday urged British authorities to follow up on the London case, saying in a statement they should “intensify investigation into this mysterious incident in order to establish its causes, identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.”
The next day, the British embassy in Cairo said authorities are working quickly to determine the circumstances of the death, while police said they had arrested a man on suspicion of arson with intent to endanger life.
London’s Metropolitan Police described Habib as a dual British and Egyptian national from Acton, west London.
“Mr. Habib’s next of kin have been informed and his family are being supported by a specially trained Family Liaison Officer,” it said in its statement, adding that a post mortem examination gave the initial cause of death as severe burns.
“At this stage in the investigation, Mr. Habib’s death is being treated as unexplained and enquiries continue to establish the full circumstances,” it said, urging witnesses or anyone with any information to come forward.
The Habib case is not the first attempt by Egypt to deflect criticism in this way. As Regeni’s killing gained attention worldwide, the foreign ministry put out statements saying that an Egyptian had also gone missing in Italy, urging authorities there to investigate.
An Arabic language social media campaign also emerged this week, with outraged Egyptians criticizing Britain as being a dangerous place, rallying behind the English hashtag: “#England_not_seafty” (sic).
In recent months, Egypt was rebuked over its human rights record by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as well as the European Union’s foreign affairs arm, the European Parliament, the U.N. Council for Human Rights and several Western European nations, including key trade partner and EU heavyweight Germany.
Regeni’s killing has fueled criticism of Egypt’s poor human rights record, and poisoned Cairo’s close ties with Rome. Italy has withdrawn its ambassador in protest at what it says is the lack of full cooperation by Egyptian investigators, while el-Sissi has denied any involvement in the case by Egypt’s security forces.
Protests planned for Monday against a government decision to hand over control of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia were effectively quashed by a massive police presence. Human Rights Watch says Egyptian police arrested at least 382 people in the days leading up to and during April 25 in Cairo.