Foreign Researchers in Egypt Are Being Harassed

This article was first published by  Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression and appears here with their permission.

From the moment the body of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni was found, the Egyptian security apparatus has been suspected of involvement in his kidnapping and death, given the widespread criticisms of its treatment of citizens and its human rights violations, as documented by rights organizations, discussed in the media, and testified to in courtrooms.

Whatever the truth of Regeni’s murder, there have been other cases that shed light on the issue of foreign students and researchers and raise questions about interference by the security establishment. How has the security apparatus previously dealt with the work of foreign researchers in Egypt? How are researchers classified? Does security generally view foreign researchers with suspicion? Why have research and academic bodies not disclosed information regarding the harassment of foreign researchers? Could Western diplomatic circles have undisclosed information about other foreign researchers who were subjected to abuses?

The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression believes the status of foreign researchers in Egypt must be addressed because any violations that pass in silence are likely to be repeated. The Egyptian government must also respect the academic freedom of foreign researchers. The AFTE does not claim that the information it has obtained and the cases it has documented necessarily reflect everything foreign researchers have experienced, especially since many sources refused to talk. Nevertheless, what information is available deserves to be actively discussed by everyone interested in academic research in Egypt.

As we issue this report, we appeal to all research and academic bodies, and all foreign students and researchers, to give their testimonies and information they possess about the type and nature of security harassment they have faced, to bolster protections for other foreign researchers working in Egypt.

Before arrival

There are two categories of foreign researchers who come to Egypt: researchers enrolled in programs with Egyptian universities or joint programs between foreign and Egyptian universities, and researchers affiliated with foreign institution who conduct research in Egypt for a short period without coordinating with academic institutions in the country. Outside of academia, researchers associated with research centers and rights organizations come to conduct interviews or hold meetings, or other similar research activities.

One person affiliated with a European research institution and working in Egypt, who requested anonymity, said, “Foreign researchers trying to conduct research in Egypt always face restraints, starting when they try to obtain visas for the purpose of academic research. Egyptian embassies in Europe usually refrain from granting visas to researchers for the purpose of research, so researchers are compelled to obtain tourist visas to enter the country and conduct research. There are no exact figures on the number of researchers who come to Egypt on an individual basis to complete their academic research, but there are certainly more than are registered in joint programs or under agreements with Egyptian universities. If Arab researchers are invited to academic symposiums in Egypt, the Egyptian authorities often refuse to grant entry visas to them, and sometimes the Egyptian authorities refuse to grant visas to Arab students coming to study in joint programs between Egyptian and European universities.”

The website of the Egyptian embassy in Washington DC shows that there is no such thing as a visa for academic research; information on the website is limited to tourist visas and business visas. The visa application has a slot for the purpose of the visit, where researchers could state that they are coming to conduct research, but this may lead Egyptian embassies to deny their application for a visa. The websites of Egyptian embassies in Europe contain the same information about entry visas.

A professor at a European university who requested anonymity said, “Usually researchers obtain a tourist visa before visiting Egypt. If they are enrolled in universities in Egypt, they renew their residency once in Egypt for the purpose of study. Masters and doctoral students who are not registered at universities in Egypt just stay the period allowable under a tourist visa.” He adds, “I think getting a tourist visa at Egyptian airports is much easier, so students accept this type of visa.”

Obstacles on the road to research

After researchers successfully reach Egypt and begin their work, they often face various impediments and restrictions in which the security apparatus plays a major role.

A person working at a European research institution in Egypt said, “Under cooperative frameworks between Egyptian public and private universities and academic exchange agreements with the Egyptian government, there are several joint programs operating in Egypt that allow researchers to work in coordination with the Egyptian authorities. This is where the security obstacles and restrictions appear. For example, there is the case of an MA researcher who was detained several times by Egyptian security while conducting field research, although he was participating in an academic program between a public Egyptian university and a European university, and his research was officially recognized. Every time, the student would be questioned about the reason he was here and the kind of work he was doing, and then he would be released. The student faced severe security pressure and was thus unable to continue his studies in Egypt. He decided to return to his country.” He continued, “There are many difficulties facing researchers in politics, sociology, economics, development, and urban planning.”

Regarding foreign researchers’ ability to access information during their research, Khaled Fahmy, a well-known history professor, says, “There are restrictions on field research. That requires a permit from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, the submission of a copy of the questionnaire, and waiting for the agency’s approval to conduct the research. Sometimes an employee with the agency will accompany the researcher during the research and the distribution of questionnaires. Often, the agency denies a permit to the researcher and other times it may change some of the questions on the questionnaire. Egyptian and foreign researchers alike face these restrictions.” Fahmy adds, “The same thing is true of the National Archives. The researcher must obtain a security permit before he can work in the archives. The researcher submits a form, a recommendation letter from his university, a copy of his passport, and a personal photograph. Recently, researchers have also had to submit a synopsis of their research project. There is an excessive number of denied permits in my experience with foreign students. Foreign researchers working on history who need to see documents at the National Archives make huge efforts in preparation for their visit to Egypt and to obtain an academic grant. They face obstacles. For example, it can take three months on average to obtain a security permit to enter the National Archives. A denial of the permit by security is a waste of the research project for which the researcher came to Egypt.”

The security establishment controls cooperation agreements between public and foreign universities. A worker in a European research institution says, “All partnership agreements between Egyptian universities and foreign universities must first pass through the security bodies, which has the final decision on whether to go head or reject them.” He adds, “Given the deterioration of the security situation, for example, a foreign university decided not to participate in the graduation ceremony for students in a joint program with an Egyptian university. The university made this decision fearing something might happen to the university students or officials if they came to Egypt. In some cases, foreign universities have transferred their students to an Arab state, where they are taught by professors from Egypt and are granted the degree under the partnership agreement between the foreign university and the Egyptian university, because of the heightened security fears.”

Security apparatus and surveillance of foreign researchers

It is necessary to address the reasons that lead the security apparatus in Egypt to track and suspect foreign researchers. “No attention is paid to the issue of foreign researchers in Egypt in Middle East studies,” Khaled Fahmy says. “For nearly 40 years, there has been an attempt to confront orientalism in academic work, to say that one cannot study Arab societies except by visiting the region, engaging with its people, and seeing what is happening on the ground. Edward Said made great efforts to defend this idea in academic circles, and it applies to the study of history, economics, literature, and other disciplines. There is always a need for foreign researchers to come to our societies, and this has been reflected in academic work about the Middle East over the last few decades. Egypt, for many reasons, is a source of interest for these foreign researchers.”

Fahmy discusses the image that the security apparatus has formed of foreign researchers, based on his experience working in the National Archives: “The security bodies view foreign researchers with suspicion and mistrust. Based on various conversations with the security official at the National Archives, they view foreign researchers as spies. They have many questions: what makes a foreigner learn Arabic and do research for a foreign university on Egypt? What does Egypt get out of this research? Is the work done for covert purposes? Egyptian security does not understand academic work or its value, so all the questions surrounding researchers’ work fall within the scope of the security apparatus. More than that, security bodies consider the production of knowledge per se to be a danger to the country’s stability. I remember that during a conversation with a security official at the National Archives, I explained to him the importance of foreign researchers studying the region in its countries. He told me, ‘Let them go study another country, not Egypt.’”

There are numerous indications of xenophobia, seen in ongoing attempts by security leaders to portray all of Egypt’s problems as the doing of researchers and journalists from Europe and the US. This fear on the part of the security apparatus has prompted it to increase surveillance of Egyptian researchers and academics’ travel abroad and deny entry to Egypt foreign researchers and academic, according to the findings of previous AFTE reports.

Fanny Ohier: French researcher harassed by security apparatus seven months before killing of Giulio Regeni

It was not easy to document cases in which foreign researchers were subjected to harassment. Many Western research bodies and diplomatic circles are apparently reluctant to disclose information about the security harassment of foreign researchers. This may represent an attempt to limit the discussion to the case of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, to the exclusion of other cases in which the practices of the Egyptian security services threatened the work and life of European researchers in Egypt. One of the few people reached by the AFTE, French researcher Fanny Ohier, gave a full statement about her experience with the security apparatus in Egypt, seven months prior to Regeni’s death.

Ohier was an MA student at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), a highly respected institution in France. For her degree, Ohier chose to write a thesis analyzing the political activism of young people in Egypt after June 30, 2013. Ohier spent some time in Egypt working in journalism, for the websites of Daily News Egypt and Huquq, from September 2012 to July 2013. She thus chose Egypt as a topic for her MA thesis, returning to Cairo on May 14, 2015.

Speaking to AFTE, Ohier related the circumstances of her arrest by Egyptian security in Damietta and her deportation to France. “I initially came to Egypt to do some basic research as part of my studies. I thought it was a simple matter and wouldn’t be difficult. I didn’t intend to write journalistic pieces about what was happening in Egypt.”

She adds, “I came to Egypt on a tourist visa. I didn’t want to draw attention to the topic I’d be working on, hoping to avoid any trouble from the Egyptian authorities. I thought researchers would be treated differently than journalists. Foreign journalists in Egypt are subject to restrictions, but why would the Egyptian authorities be interested in research that wouldn’t be published or be in the news? At the time, I knew that many researchers come to Egypt on tourist visas and carry out their research in peace. Before my arrival in Egypt, I spoke with some French researchers in Egypt working on political and social topics. They all told me I needed to be cautious in light of the political and security situation in Egypt. I also contacted journalists, and I tried to understand the political situation in Egypt before the trip and before starting the research. I also wanted to reach out to some youth activists to interview them. Initially, I meet with youth from the Destour Party to learn about the nature of their political activity after the events of June 2013 then I began to study April 6 and its activities. I later conducted some interviews. I went to Alexandria in June 2015 and on July 1, I went to Damietta to interview some April 6 activists there.”

Speaking of the interviews, Ohier says, “It was spontaneous. I wanted to know about youth activity outside of Cairo. I went to Damietta because it’s a small city in the Delta so I’d learn about the differences between political action in a big city like Cairo and other, smaller cities. I was careful and chose to contact people my friends knew.”

Regarding the circumstances of her arrest, she says, “In Damietta, I met once with April 6 activists in the city. I met five members of the movement in a café. Most of my questions were about what kind of differences they found between political action in Damietta and Cairo—a set of simple questions appropriate for a short academic study. It was Ramadan. When I finished the suhur meal, I went back to my hotel with an activist friend in the movement. It was around 2:30 am on July 2, 2015. I entered by room and started to go to sleep. It wasn’t more than a half an hour before I heard someone knocking on my door. When I opened the door, there were ten security men. They didn’t say a word and entered the room, examining everything in it. They had a translator with them who told me to gather my belongings and bring them with me. I thought at the time that they were following me before that because they asked me if I had gone to Alexandria, which had happened two weeks earlier. I was not mistreated or beaten. They just told me to come with them to the station. There they examined my papers and my personal computer. The translator explained to them my written notes in Arabic. I didn’t understand what was going on among them. They examined my personal computer for a long time and I couldn’t see exactly what they were doing. I think they copied some files.”

On being questioned at the police station, Ohier says, “They started to ask me if I was a journalist. They had seen some of the journalism I did in Tunisia on my computer. They asked me if I was writing something about Egypt for the press. I told them nothing. I didn’t want to talk about the research I was doing to avoid causing more trouble to the April 6 activists. I just told them I was a tourist, so they asked me why I came to Damietta. I told them I’d never visited the city before and I came to visit a new place. The interrogation lasted no more than an hour I think, and most of the time, they were interested in examining the computer. I slept a little at the station. In the morning, they brought a car to take us to Cairo. I was with seven security and army men. I’d ask them from time to time whether I was under arrest and they would tell me this was only for my personal safety.”

After reaching Cairo, Ohier says, “They took me to the Mogamma in Tahrir and they cancelled my entry visa to Egypt. I was afraid to speak to them in Arabic because they might think I was a spy. By that time, my friend who was in the hotel had notified the French embassy and contacted some friends. The embassy was notified of my arrest maybe just an hour after it happened. They let me talk on the phone to an employee at the French embassy, who told me that the Egyptian authorities wanted me to leave Egypt within 24 hours and that if I didn’t have enough money to book an airline ticket immediately, they would hold me at the station and I needed to avoid that. I had enough money and went to an airline company in Tahrir. The security men who escorted me from Damietta were still with me. I reserved a ticket and then we went to the Cairo airport. They were friendly with me. We were together for several hours. Even so, I was afraid I’d be hurt. They gave me phone before we reached the airport, and I was able to talk to some friends. There I stayed in the deportation area. I spent the night there, before leaving for France at 9 am on July 3, 2015.

Speaking of the assistance given her by the French embassy, Ohier said, “I think the French embassy did not want to create problems with the Egyptian authorities, to preserve diplomatic ties and interests. The embassy was not interested in talking about this incident or about human rights in Egypt. When I returned to France, some officials I met with told me my case was very good because I came back safely to my country and I wasn’t harmed, beaten, or imprisoned in Egypt.

Fanny Ohier concluded her statement saying, “When I read about Giulio Regeni seven months after my deportation from Egypt, I felt I was more than lucky. It occurred to me that the French embassy quickly learned of my arrest by security because a friend had notified them. Maybe that’s the difference between my case and that of Giulio. I could have met the same fate. When I read about the Giulio incident, it really affected me. I know these feelings well, I went through them. I learned from some friends after my return that the French authorities think that if I decided to travel to Egypt again, I’d be imprisoned there. I will never visit Egypt.”

Ohier’s statement indicates that the French embassy refused to defend her right to academic research. This is consistent with information obtained by the AFTE from another researcher who requested anonymity. He said that one European embassy had informed researchers that it could not be responsible for the consequences of their academic work if they came to Egypt on a tourist visa. If they had problems with the security authorities in Egypt, this would be their problem alone. The embassy would simply take action to caution them in the event of any threats or danger in the country. In the case of one MA researcher who was arrested several times and questioned about his research activities, his embassy did not raise the issue with the Egyptian authorities and he was ultimately forced to leave Egypt, though he was enrolled in a joint program with an Egyptian public university. Perhaps because this case was not discussed, most academic warnings after Regeni’s death focused exclusively on Regeni’s case, without addressing other instances in which foreign researchers were monitored and harassed by the Egyptian security apparatus.

What next?

Incidents discussed in this report demonstrate the fear felt by foreign researchers in Egypt, in light of indications that security classifies the work of these researchers as a threat to national security. Based on our observations, this has led to the monitoring and harassment of foreign researchers in several cases.

This report aims to initiate a discussion on the types of violations faced by foreign researchers by providing information that an help form a general picture of the status of foreign researchers in Egypt and the security establishment’s relationship to their work. This may encourage other researchers to come forward and give the media the opportunity to bring to light incidents known by European research institutions operating in Egypt.

The AFTE believes that the first step to protecting foreign researchers in Egypt involves publicizing the security violations and harassment they have faced and exposing the truth of the killing of Giulio Regeni. Academic and research bodies, both Egypt and foreign, bear a great responsibility to disclose previously unknown cases. We hope that this report helps to alleviate the pressures that prevent a discussion about the status of foreign researchers in Egypt. We cannot accept the violation of any person’s rights and the endangerment of life, regardless of his nationality.

The AFTE thus urges all academic and research institutions in Egypt to provide it with information about violations of academic freedom that have affected foreign researchers in Egypt, to use this information to draft recommendations for the Egyptian government and to further cooperation to ensure the security, safety, and academic freedom of foreign researchers in Egypt.

Mohamed Abdel Salam is a researcher for the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, in Cairo.


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