Uncertainty for Egypt research collaborations

Published online 29 February 2016

The death of an Italian PhD student in Egypt plus documented impingements on academic freedoms may compromise research collaborations with international peers.

Nadia El-Awady

A Facebook picture of Giulio Regeni. 
A Facebook picture of Giulio Regeni. 
A shadow has been cast on the future of Egypt’s international scientific collaborations after the brutal death of an Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni in Cairo raised concerns over the safety of foreign researchers. 

The 28-year-old Cambridge university student, who was studying the role of trade unions in Egypt, disappeared on 25 January. His body, which appeared to have been tortured, was found 10 days later on the outskirts of the capital.

It is not clear who is responsible for his death. A joint Egyptian-Italian investigation is underway. 

Some organizations and researchers have already warned against conducting research in Egypt. “Given the escalation in violence and repression against academics and researchers in Egypt, we believe that scholars should think very carefully about travelling to Egypt for research and study purposes,” says Beth Baron, president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), a US-based nonprofit umbrella organization for scholars of Middle Eastern studies, which cites “an increase in intimidation of researchers”.

MESA has written several public letters to Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, one protesting a provisional death sentence – in absentia – against Emad Shahin, a professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo and currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Shahin was charged of espionage, among other crimes.

Their last letter regarding Egypt, on 8 February, lists several cases of Egyptian and foreign researchers, journalists and legal professionals barred from entering or exiting the country. 

“In the past week alone, in all honesty, I could not advise three of my [Harvard University] students to do research in Egypt,” says Khaled Fahmy, professor of history at the American University in Cairo and visiting professor at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. “I just could not, in good faith, take the moral and legal responsibility of signing their papers.”

Ahmed Sakr, an Egyptian master’s degree student in Japan, had planned to do his thesis on good governance and water policies in Egypt. His fieldwork would have involved visiting remote locations in the country to study how locals manage water scarcity. 

But, following Regeni’s death, Sakr’s American supervisor at Keio University in Tokyo had told him: “Over my dead body,” when he asked for approval for the trip.  

Fahmy believes research in Egypt can now be considered more dangerous than in neighbouring war-torn countries such as Libya and Iraq. He says Regeni’s death can be considered a turning point because of what he believes are indications that his death was not random.

“This is not indiscriminate killing. You can be targeted, not as collateral damage in a local war but because of what you do. And that’s much more ominous, much more dangerous in a certain way,” he explains. 

Fahmy expects that the next round of scholarship funding for foreign students to conduct research in Egypt, due in a few months, will be affected by the current unease. “These are bound by the laws of their funding governments and they will not send students to dangerous places,” he says, citing the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Commission and the American Research Center in Egypt as examples of scholarship funding organizations, that may in the future be reluctant to fund research in Egypt.

Nagwan El-Ashwal, an Egyptian researcher studying Islamic movements at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy pointed to an atmosphere of distrust being fostered in Egypt. Almost two years after the country’s 2011 uprising, state TV broadcast a public service announcement warning Egyptians about speaking to foreigners who might be spies. The ad was soon pulled after criticism. 

“Researchers need to ask questions to get to the bottom of their research,” says El-Ashwal. “That kind of video makes all researchers prone to arrest because it paints them in a single light: that they are spies.”

Fahmy agrees this is a serious issue. “The problem is … [the Egyptian authorities] cannot understand how a student in Cambridge University came to learn Arabic and to know Egypt so well to be able to [meet] with labour activists. 

“This is the darkest period in modern Egyptian history.”