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The perils of conducting academic research in Sisi’s Egypt

(This chapter was originally published in Italian on 13 January in Minnena 2: Repressione, disinformazione e ricerca tra Egitto e Italia, edited by Lorenzo Casini and Daniela Melfa.)

The tragic fate that Giulio Regeni met in Cairo in January 2016 is a grim blot on Egypt’s record of protecting academic research. While academic freedom is not sacrosanct in Egypt, never before has a researcher, national or foreigner, been abducted, tortured, and murdered because of their research, no matter how delicate or sensitive their subject matter is. Five years after Regeni’s brutal murder, the Egyptian authorities have yet to identify, let alone prosecute, the perpetrators of this heinous crime, so we owe it to Regeni’s memory at least to make sense of this tragedy by putting it in the context of academic freedom in Egypt. The following few pages chart the general contours of the protections of, and limits to, academic research in Egypt; probe the peculiar circumstances surrounding academic research in the wake of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s assumption of power in 2014; and examine the specific reasons that mark Regeni’s murder as a turning point in the history of academic research in Egypt.

Guarantees of and limitations to academic research:

The current Egyptian constitution (promulgated in 2014 and amended in 2019) includes a few articles that protect academic research. Article 21, for example, says that “the state guarantees the independence of universities…” Article 66 adds that “Freedom of scientific research is guaranteed. The state shall sponsor researchers and inventors and protect and work to apply their innovations.” These constitutional guarantees notwithstanding, in actual practice academic research is subject to the vagaries of the multiple and often competing security agencies, but primarily the National Security Sector (NSS, Qita‘ al-Amn al-Watani, formerly, the State Security Agency, SSC, or Gihaz Amn al-Dawla).

As indicated by Art. 66 of the Constitution, when scientific or academic research is mentioned, it is usually to refer to research in the natural or physical sciences. These fields of inquiry are thought to be “objective” and “scientific”. The nation needs doctors and engineers, and the state is obliged to protect and guarantee research in their fields. Society also needs artists and “creators” (mubdi‘een), e.g. novelists, poets and musicians who work on “elevating” public taste and “edify” the masses. These fields of inquiry are “honorable” and worthy of protection. However, public discourse and state concern change dramatically when we turn to the humanities and social sciences. These fields of study are not only underfunded and socially undervalued but are also viewed with suspicion. When conducting archival research, say, on social history during Ottoman rule, or field work on agricultural cooperatives in a small Delta village, this immediately raises eyebrows, especially those of security agencies officers, primarily in the NSS. “Why is she working on Ottoman social history? Is it to uncover public appropriation of Coptic Church charitable endowments?” I can almost hear the NSS officer wondering. “And what are this researcher’s true objectives for studying agricultural cooperatives? Might his real intentions lie in studying irrigation, which is a topic of grave national security importance given our dispute with Ethiopia over the Nile waters and the Great Renaissance Dam?” 

So even though social scientists, e.g., anthropologists, sociologists, demographers, historians, etc., are free to conduct their research legally, their research is always circumscribed by law and is often conducted under the furtive purview of intelligence services. Research permits are always required; certain topics of national security concern (e.g., minorities, borders, sexuality, to name just a few) are off limits; and foreign researchers are required to work under the auspices of Egyptian supervisors. In these circumstances the security mentality trumps everything, and constitutional protections of academic research, as limited as they are to start with, are often sacrificed. According to this security mentality, information itself, or rather, the dissemination of information, is dangerous. Information is to be gathered and hoarded, not analyzed and disseminated. Knowledge production is conflated with espionage, and social researchers are sometimes viewed as undercover foreign agents.

Despite these restrictions that occasionally lead researchers in the humanities and social scientists to feel they work under a cloud of suspicion, social scientific research used to thrive in Egypt where it was conducted in national universities as well as in numerous research institutes. And within the field of Middle Eastern studies in US and European universities, Egyptian studies used to loom large, and Egypt was considered one of the most studied countries in the region. Furthermore, in contradistinction to earlier times when generations of Orientalists produced knowledge on the Orient while sitting in their loft towers in Western universities and without setting foot in the countries they study, no serious scholarship on Egypt or other parts of the Middle East conducted in Western universities nowadays is taken seriously without actually visiting the countries being studied and without having a personal encounter with the societies being investigated. 

As someone who has been teaching modern Egyptian history in US and UK universities for more than 25 years, I myself have supervised dozens of non-Egyptian PhD students. All these students have invariably conducted their PhD research in Egypt. I consider myself very fortunate that most of my students had a fruitful and enjoyable time while conducting their research in Egypt and ended up producing first rate dissertations that have enriched the field of Middle Eastern studies at large, and modern Egyptian history, in particular. While I consider them to be the best ambassadors that Egypt could have abroad, I am also aware that they were always viewed with suspicion by the intelligence officers who must have screened their research permits. Cognizant of the security mentality that hovers above academic research in the humanities and social science, I always advised my students to obey the law, never lie about their research topics, and never be apologetic about what they do. What I feared most was for any of my foreign students to be summoned and interrogated by a security agency, or worse still, to have their research permit suspended. The worst that could ever happen was to have their visa annulled and to be deported. This did happen to one of my best students who, much to their credit, ended up finishing a first-rate dissertation and landed a coveted job in an elite US university.

Regeni’s research topic and methodology:

Therefore, what happened to Giulio Regeni was as shocking as it was disturbing. It was both unpredictable and uncharacteristic. As said above, the academic environment in Egypt leaves much to be desired. Still, the worst that a foreign researcher could face was to be deported from the country. To be abducted, tortured and killed, and to suffer so brutally because of one’s academic research, has never happened in Egypt before. 

This obviously begs the question of how to explain what happened to Regeni. Naturally, the details of the criminal investigations surrounding this brutal fate are beyond the purview of this chapter. Still, a few words can be proffered here about how his tragic fate fits, or does not fit, within the overall situation of academic freedom in Egypt.

For one thing, Regeni’s PhD dissertation topic, labor activism in present-day Egypt, while sensitive, was not considered a “taboo” topic that would make it off limits. One can think of even more sensitive topics that were pursued openly by Egyptian and foreign researchers alike. I myself have been working on the history of the Egyptian military and I have a few friends and colleagues who work on the present-day Egyptian police. As said above, these topics are tolerated grudgingly and with suspicion, but they are tolerated, nonetheless. Occasionally one gets questioned by an inquisitive security officer, but given that one is conducting academic research legally and legitimately, the misunderstanding is usually easily ironed out. Why, a few years before his horrible murder, a compatriot of Regeni’s had been conducting research on the Egyptian communist movement, arguably a more sensitive topic than Regeni’s. Not only was this scholar’s research experience problem-free; the PhD dissertation he finished based on his field work in Egypt was eventually translated from Italian to Arabic and even published by the National Centre for Translation, an arm of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. 

Nor was Regeni’s research method –participant observation– unorthodox or deemed illegal or dangerous within the Egyptian academic environment. Again, conducting fieldwork for any purposes is looked at with suspicion by security agencies, but provided one is conducting such research under the auspices of an Egyptian academic institution, then one is typically allowed to finish one’s research unimpeded. And this is exactly what Regeni was doing: while he was registered as a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, in Egypt, he was officially affiliated with, and working under the supervision of, a professor in the American University in Cairo, a fully accredited and highly respected academic institution that has been functioning in the country for over a century.

Regeni’s death: a turning point:

While bold and sensitive, Regeni’s PhD dissertation topic was therefore neither unheard of nor exceptionally risky to undertake. It was also performed legally and legitimately.  The question that should be raised regarding his brutal murder, accordingly, should not be “Could it have been predicted or avoided?” Rather one should ask “How indicative is his murder of a rupture in the manner in which academic research is monitored in Egypt?” 

Following his election to the presidency by a 96% margin in 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has moved firmly and rapidly to restore stability to the country after years of revolutionary turmoil. Speaking in 2018, he declared “Be warned, what happened seven or eight years ago will not be repeated in Egypt,” in reference to the mass demonstrations that the country witnessed from 2011 to 2013 and that saw the Muslim Brotherhood win parliamentary and then presidential elections before he led the army in a coup that deposed President Muhammad Morsy in 2013. A recent Human Rights Report on Egypt says:

Under the pretext of combating terrorism, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government has effectively given the Interior Ministry’s police and National Security Agency free rein to suppress all opposition, including peaceful dissent, with near-absolute impunity for grave abuses. The result has been one of the worst prolonged human rights crises in the country’s recent history. 

As a result of the Regeni case, and in the wake of the recent trend of targeting Egyptian researchers studying in European universities, multitudes of Egyptian academics — teaching staff and students — are now fearful of returning home, and some have already been living in self-imposed exile for years. And more and more professors are advising their students intent on studying Egypt to do so remotely, without visiting the country. 

With regards to academic research, the country witnessed serious violations to academic freedom since 2014. On June 24, 2014, a few days following his election, President Sisi amended the Law Regulating Universities, vesting in his office the power to appoint university presidents and other leadership. On October 27, 2014, President al-Sisi issued Decree Law No. 136 for the year 2014, which places universities, among other public institutions and facilities, under military control. The decree, which purported to protect “vital and public institutions,” requires the armed forces to coordinate with the police in order to protect these facilities, thus permitting the military to enter campus at will. In January 2015, President Sisi amended the Law Regulating Universities to permit university presidents to refer teaching staff to disciplinary boards. (Scholars at Risk and Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, “Joint Submission to the Universal Periodic Review of Egypt by Scholars at Risk and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression in Egypt,” 2021 (?), p. 3. ) Furthermore, in the Academic Year (AY) 2014-2015, the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, AFTE, an independent Egyptian NGO monitoring academic freedom in Egypt, documented 761 cases of student arrests in the academic year 2014-2015, and 84 cases in 2015-16.

While the academics — teaching staff and students — who suffered as a result of these measures paid a heavy price, none could be seen as having been targeted because of their academic research. Rather, the majority of those staff members who were referred to disciplinary boards and those students who were killed or arrested were targeted either due to suspected membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist organization, or to their presence on university campuses during the confrontation between military and security forces and civilian demonstrators in the turbulent months following the 2013 military coup. Thus, on October 21, 2014, an Alexandria University student named Omar Sharif was killed by a shot in the chest when security forces stormed the campus. And on May 16, 2015 another student named Anas al-Mahdi died in hospital after reportedly being beaten by private security forces the previous month during demonstrations in Cairo University.  In 2015, furthermore, authorities detained researcher and journalism Ismail Alexandrani and charged him with publishing false information about army activities combatting violent Islamist groups in Sinai. In 2018, a military court sentenced him to ten years in prison for membership in a terrorist organization and publishing false information.

By contrast, with Giulio Regeni’s horrific abduction, torture and murder we see the beginning of a trend whereby academics being targeted not because of their political affiliation or political activism, but because of their academic research. Thus,

  • In August 2016, the German University in Cairo (GUC) reportedly terminated its contract with Tarek Abol Naga, a professor of architecture, in apparent retaliation for student projects he supervised., projects that explored themes including “nudity in the history of humanity” and “feminine divinity across civilizations.” 
  • On March 8, 2017, Suez University officials suspended Dr. Mona Prince, a scholar of English literature, because according to a university official her lectures amounted to “contempt of religion.”
  • On May 2, 2018, Ahmed Rashwan, a faculty member in modern and contemporary history in the Faculty of Education at the University of Damanhour University, was placed under administrative investigation and suspended for three months in connection with arguments he made in a book titled Studies in Modern Egyptian History. The president of the university reportedly referred Dr. Rashwan for investigation based on claims he had made about Mubarak-era clerics, including former minister of religious affairs Sheikh Mitwally al-Sha‘rawi and Amr Khaled, a television preacher.
  • On May 24, 2018, Egyptian authorities detained Walid Salem, a PhD student from the 

University of Washington, in apparent connection with his academic research on the Egyptian judiciary. He was later charged with “spreading false news” and “joining a terrorist group”. He was released from custody in late December 2018; but his case remains pending, and has been repeatedly barred from leaving the country to resume his studies.

  • On February 7, 2020, authorities arrested Patrick Zaki an Egyptian student studying for an MA degree on gender at Bologna University, Italy. He was allegedly blindfolded, beaten, and held in solitary confinement. On 9 December 2021, Zaki was released from prison. However, the charges against him have not been dropped, and he is set to attend a hearing on 1 February 2022
  • On February 1, 2021, authorities detained Central European University student, Ahmed Samir Santawi, during a trip back home to visit his family. Santawi was studying for an MA degree and his topic was abortion and reproductive rights among Egyptian women. On June 22, 2021, a State Security Court sentenced Santawi to four years in prison for publishing false information on social media purportedly on the Giulio Regeni case.
  • On July 11, 2021, authorities detained Egyptian historian, Alia Mosallam, when she landed at Cairo Airport with her family on her annual vacation. Dr Mosallam is a researcher at Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Her research topics include the popular historiography of the building of the Aswan Dam as well as the history of popular songs sung by Egyptian workers during the First World War. Dr. Musallam was interrogated by State Security Prosecutor for 28 hours before being released.   

It is difficult to say with any degree of certainty what specifically triggered state wrath against these academics. Nor is it possible to ascertain what research topics the security agencies are now considering off limits. What can be said for certain is that the dreadful Giulio Regeni case marks a watershed whereby security agencies started targeting academics qua academics and have started casting a much wider net under which to ban more and more research topics. As mentioned above, academic research was never sacrosanct in Egypt, and social researchers have always been viewed with suspicion by security agencies. However, since 2015-16, and definitely since the Regeni case, it is clear that academic freedom is being subjected to tighter restrictions and that researchers are facing much more serious threats to their liberty and even to their lives than ever before. 

As mentioned above, Human Rights Watch has recently stated that since the beginning of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s presidency, Egypt entered “one of the worst prolonged human rights crises in [its] recent history.” On its part, the Academic Freedom Committee of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) recently sent an open letter to President Sisi “express[ing their] deep concern regarding the deterioration of academic freedom in Egypt.” Citing many of the cases mentioned above, and many more, the MESA letter is indicative of the serious misgivings and fears academics around the world have towards the fate of their Egyptian colleagues and others working in and on Egypt. But above all other cases, the dreadful torture and murder of Giulio Regeni while conducting his PhD research in Cairo and the inability of the Egyptian authorities after five years of investigation, to identify, arraign, or bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice have sent shivers down the spine of many an academic working on Egypt. Egyptian social researchers now have to think more than once before embarking on their research no matter how innocent or innocuous they think their research topics to be. The situation of foreign researchers is much worse, as the Regeni case has signaled that academic research is perilous and can be mortally dangerous. 

The long-term implications for academic research on Egypt cannot be graver. As a result of the Regeni case, and in the wake of the recent trend of targeting Egyptian researchers studying in European universities, multitudes of Egyptian academics — teaching staff and students — are now fearful of returning home, and some have already been living in self-imposed exile for years. And more and more professors are advising their students intent on studying Egypt to do so remotely, without visiting the country. This constitutes a serious reversal of the historical trend that had put an end to the Orientalist scholarship that was based on textual analysis rather than fieldwork and direct, lived experience. 

The brutal death of Giulio Regeni while conducting academic research in Cairo is an unprecedented attack on academic freedom. While academic research in the humanities and social sciences in Egypt was always viewed with suspicion, it was unfathomable, before the launch of President Sisi’s war on terror and his giving the security forces a free rein, for a foreign researcher to be abducted, tortured and killed in the brutal manner that was inflicted on Giulio Regeni. And the long-term repercussions of this dreadful case on academic freedom in Egypt are only now starting to be felt.

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