Italians return French Legion awards after el-Sissi gets one

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaks during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee palace, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020 in Paris. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was meeting Monday with French President Emmanuel Macron for talks on fighting terrorism, the conflict in Libya and other regional issues as part of a state visit to France, amid criticism from human rights groups over the Egyptian leader's crackdown on dissent. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, Pool)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaks during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee palace, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020 in Paris. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was meeting Monday with French President Emmanuel Macron for talks on fighting terrorism, the conflict in Libya and other regional issues as part of a state visit to France, amid criticism from human rights groups over the Egyptian leader's crackdown on dissent. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, Pool) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ROME – Two prominent Italian intellectuals announced Monday they were returning their Legion of Honor awards to France to protest that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was given the prize despite his government's human rights abuses.

Corrado Augias, a longtime journalist for La Repubblica daily and onetime European Parliamentarian for Italy’s center-left, returned his prize to the French Embassy on Monday. Giovanna Melandri, a former Italian culture minister and the president of Rome's Maxxi contemporary art museum, announced she would follow suit.

Both cited Egypt’s role in the 2016 kidnapping, torture and killing of an Italian doctoral research student in Cairo, as well as the regime's other human rights violations.

French President Emmanuel Macron rolled out the red carpet for el-Sissi's two-day visit last week and awarded him the highest French honor during a closed-door ceremony Sept. 7 that only became public after the Egyptian presidency published photos of it.

Also last week, Rome prosecutors formally placed four high-ranking members of Egypt’s security forces under investigation over the death of Giulio Regeni, whose 2016 killing strained relations between Rome and Cairo and galvanized Italy's human rights community.

Speaking outside the French Embassy, Augias said he returned his 2007 prize out of “a sense of indignation,” given that the award was bestowed on el-Sissi at the same time that Rome prosecutors were detailing the torture that Regeni suffered to a parliamentary committee.

“The two things together were too strong,” he told reporters. “I couldn't refrain from reacting."

Melandri said in a Facebook post Monday that she too would return the honor she received in 2003, saying it was sad but necessary to make clear that “honor" should mean something.