By Lin Noueihed
CAIRO, Feb 26 – When a colleague in Holland asked historian Pascale Ghazaleh this month whether to send a group of students to Egypt, her response was a resounding ‘No’.
“I said I don’t think we should because besides all the misunderstandings that can traditionally potentially happen, the harassment which is par for the course… you could also get tortured and murdered in the course of your research,” she said.
The killing of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, who disappeared on Jan. 25, the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-rule, has sent a chill through the academic community in Egypt and beyond.
Scholars in Egypt say they have long worked under threat of arrest or deportation, but the gruesome nature of Regeni’s death has raised fears that the pursuit of knowledge will fall victim to the toughest assault on freedom in Egypt’s modern history.
The tortured and broken corpse of the 28-year old Cambridge University student, who was researching the rise of independent labour unions following the 2011 revolt, was found at the side of a motorway nine days after he vanished.
Human rights groups say Regeni’s killing bears the hallmarks of the security services – an accusation Egypt has rejected.
Scholars inside and outside Egypt point to a history of harassment against colleagues studying labour activism in the country and have demanded an independent probe including into the possibility police or security services were involved.
Repeated bouts of labour unrest in the years leading up to 2011 helped fuel demands for change and the uprising gave a moribund union movement a new lease of life and independence. That role has marked the labour movement out to authorities as a potential well-spring of mass political mobilisation.
“I know a number of other academics who worked on similar issues who have been arrested, detained, denied entry or forced to leave Egypt,” said Amy Austin Holmes, assistant professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
“Many people don’t realise this, because when this happens the academics in question usually stay silent, hoping that next time they will get a visa.”
The influential Middle East Studies Association has warned its 2,700 members to reflect carefully on plans to work in Egypt, calling Regeni’s death the “tragically predictable outcome” of a rise in violence and repression against academics.
“We believe there is reason for serious concern regarding anyone’s ability to carry out research safely,” it said in a message to members.
That message was echoed by students and faculty at AUC, where Regeni was a visiting scholar, who issued a statement at a tearful memorial on Wednesday calling on the university to protect the right of their community to work freely and safely.
Professors say they now face an dilemma: should they suspend fieldwork on sensitive topics or push on with research, despite the risks that entails.
“We need to be clear about what to do. Can we do research or should I censor my students? It is a very serious issue whether for Egyptians or foreigners,” said Hanan Sabea, associate professor of anthropology at AUC.
Scholars and researchers in Egypt faced pressure before 2011, but say restrictions have increased in the past two years.
Human rights groups accuse President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government of widespread abuses, allegations it denies.
As armed forces chief, Sisi toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule. Security forces killed hundreds of Mursi supporters and jailed thousands. Secular activists were later rounded up.
NGOs have also been closed in what critics say is an effort to strip away freedoms won in the 2011 uprising.
When Philip Rizk, a dual Egyptian-German national, was detained at a protest in support of Gaza in 2009, he said he was blindfolded and interrogated for four days but eventually freed unharmed and allowed to resume his graduate studies.
But under rules introduced in 2014, students are banned from any political or partisan activity at state universities. The president must now also approve appointments of top staff, keeping out scholars who do not toe the political line.
Scholars at private colleges also face pressures.
Emad Shahin, a respected academic and public policy professor at AUC, fled the country in 2014 after being charged with espionage for his opposition to Mursi’s overthrow. He was later sentenced to death in absentia.
Now in the United States, Shahin says he has no intention of returning until he is assured of a fair trial.
“The situation that Egypt is currently going through is important to many academic and research fields,” he said. “Being unable to study these first hand is a great loss.”
Yet students and faculty remain defiant. At a vigil on AUC’s sprawling campus last week, students unfurled a huge banner from a rooftop reading: “Giulio’s murder is not an isolated incident” and “the AUC bubble will not protect you”.
Speaking after a memorial for Regeni, Ghazaleh said historians and other researchers were even vetted by security to get access to the national archives.
“The change in Giulio being tortured and murdered is that the last taboo fell,” she said.
“So class no longer protects people where once it might have, connections don’t protect people where once they might have and now nationality doesn’t protect people.”