The Price of Egypt’s Anti-Cosmopolitanism

No one knows how Giulio Regeni was murdered, or by whom. But from the moment the body of the 28-year-old Italian graduate student was found on the side of the road in a Cairo suburb, suspicion has fallen on Egypt’s security services.

Some reports say that Regeni, whose area of specialization was labor unions, was taken into custody on January 25, the anniversary of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, when the police were conducting many raids, interrogations and arrests. If this is true, than it is likely that Regeni, who was studying at Cambridge and affiliated with the American University in Cairo, was attacked because of his research into independent labor unions (which he was also writing about, under a pseudonym, for the Italian press).

If Regeni was interrogated and tortured by Egypt’s security services, his death is the result of rampant police impunity and a paranoid attitude toward outsiders that has been encouraged by the authorities there.

The Middle East Studies Association has now issued a security alert for study and research in Egypt, stating that “We believe there is reason for serious concern regarding anyone’s ability to carry out research safely. Our concern is for both non-Egyptians going to Egypt and Egyptian colleagues; with Egyptian and non-Egyptian students; and those with whom we may seek to collaborate or involve in our research.”

As I’ve written about before, working in many Middle Eastern countries has become increasingly dangerous for foreign scholars. Open conflict or unpredictable political repression are turning countries where many Middle East scholars spent their formative years into no-go zones.

In much of the Arab world, knowledge and research are still treated as a matter of national security, and any request for information is inherently suspicious. The list of sensitive topics is long and arbitrary, spanning religion, sexuality and politics.

In recent years, the military regime in Egypt has fomented an extremely xenophobic atmosphere. The regime’s supporters argue that the uprising against Hosni Mubarak five years ago was largely a Western plot. The government has criminalized civil-society organizations and cultural institutions receiving foreign funding—although it goes on receiving foreign aid itself. Foreign journalists and researchers are all potential “spies.” At every tragedy that strikes the country (from the downing of a Russian airplane by terrorists to Regeni’s murder), conspiracy theories circulate ascribing it to unnamed foreign elements bent on undermining the country.

The situation is most dire for local academics, who face heavy-handed restrictions on their freedom of expression and mobility. In November, Ismail Alexandrani was arrested at the Hurghada Airport as he re-entered Egypt. His pre-trial detention has been renewed ever since. Alexandrani was a researcher at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) and the Paris-based Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) whose specialization was Sinai. Many believe the reason he was arrested was because of critical remarks he made at a conference in Berlin regarding the Egyptian army’s counter-terrorism campaign in Sinai.

Other Egyptian scholars have been surprised to find that they are banned from leaving the country. Just recently, Kholoud Saber, an assistant lecturer at Cairo University who also works at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, which covers academic freedoms, was told she must abandon the doctorate she was pursuing abroad at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. (The decision was overturned after an outcry.)

Scholars in Egypt, which has a thousand-year-old history as a center of learning, and which is one of the most studied countries in the region, are increasingly isolated.

In just the last few days I have heard of an academic conference scheduled for next month in Cairo whose organizers are now thinking of changing location, and of a think tank that has warned its contributors that working in the country may be dangerous. This is without mentioning many international think tanks, cultural institutions and universities that have either been prevented from operating in the country or decided against doing so any more.

Yet the authorities do not seem to view this as a negative development. In fact they seem intent on both limiting access to Egypt by critical foreign observers of any kind and on limiting their intelligentsia’s contact with the outside world. Hence the shocking policy of forcing university professors to pay their way out of the country, rather then encouraging them to attend conferences or take teaching stints abroad.

This isolationism is untenable and bound to backfire. Regeni’s murder has attracted exactly the kind of international attention Egyptian officials would like to avoid. In Italy, it has unleashed a debate over the two countries’ relations, and the way Italian officials have placed economic interests and security cooperation above human rights.

Writing in the online academic journal Jadaliyya, film-maker, writer and activist Omar Robert Hamilton focused on the uncomfortable questions Regeni’s scholarship and his murder raise for both governments. It is important, he writes to “keep in the forefront of our discussions how economically powerful countries like Italy benefit from the maintenance of dictatorial regimes in client states in order to better exploit their natural resources and human labor. The local business elites and international corporations make astronomical profits while the security services repress domestic opposition. That repression has long included the torture and murder of labor activists. Today it includes Giulio.”

The first question Regeni’s murder raises is one of basic human rights. But an important secondary question is about Egypt’s relationship to the outside world and to knowledge production.

It is not impossible for closed, authoritarian regimes to educate their citizens. But generally speaking, scholarship flourishes in open societies, when academics can form international networks, exchange ideas, keep up on the latest developments in their fields and collaborate across borders. Egypt is too central to the future of the Middle East to cut itself off from intellectual contact with much of the world, in the hopes of limiting criticism and the spread of supposedly subversive thoughts.


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