A Conversation With a Scholar Who Has Been Sentenced to Death
MONTREAL—One of the most prominent targets of the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the academic community has been political scientist Emad El-Din Shahin. A professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo, he was outside the country lecturing on the peaceful resolution of conflict when he heard that he had been indicted for conspiring with foreign organizations to undermine Egypt’s national security. He called the charges “beyond preposterous,” a view echoed by academics around the world who know him. Nathan J. Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University told The New York Times, “I would sooner believe that Vice President Biden is a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army than I would give credence to the charges against Emad.”
That was in 2013, not long after Egypt’s army overthrew the country’s elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi. Shahin returned home, but in early January 2014 he fled after learning that an arrest warrant had been issued for him. The following year an Egyptian court sentenced Shahin to death in absentia along with former president Morsi and more than a hundred other defendants convicted in a mass trial.
The verdict sparked international condemnation. But Shahin says it makes sense when seen as part of the military-backed government’s brutal campaign to stifle critical voices. A scholar with a strong international reputation, he has repeatedly condemned the military coup along with the killings and mass jailings that followed.
Emad Shahin is currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, in Washington, DC. In June he attended the congress of the Scholars at Risk Network, in Montreal, where he answered questions from Nathalie Des Rosiers, a well-known Canadian professor of constitutional law. (A video of the discussion is here.) He also spoke with Al-Fanar Media’s Burton Bollag. Here is a compilation of questions and answers.
– How do you see the turbulent political developments of the last five years in Egypt? First long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak was forced from power in the Arab Spring mass protests of 2011, then the elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown by the army in 2013.
From day one I have been writing prolifically against the July 2013 coup, because I am defending a democratic process that was started in 2011, and then got thwarted by the intervention of the military. I should make clear, I never defended individual people, I never mentioned Morsi. I feel a university professor is like a judge and should never belong to any political party, and not even vote. I defend a democratic process that we should have finished.
I shouldn’t be saying this because it could be self-incriminating—but I was involved with several initiatives to bring different parties together in order to strengthen the civilian front against military rule. I have also been very outspoken in international conferences. For the army generals who are trying to project a certain image and acquire legitimacy worldwide, I think I have been very annoying.
And I have to say the international community has not been of much help because up to now, despite all the atrocities and the human-rights violations, the United States of America and many European countries do not recognize what happened in Egypt as a coup.
– How did you learn that you had been indicted for capital crimes?
I was abroad giving lectures about—(laughs)—the peaceful resolution of conflict. Someone on Facebook informed me that I was a defendant in a high-profile case. The charges were very vague, like “grand espionage”—that’s what they call it, smuggling arms, forcing the armed forces to move from the eastern front to the western front, etc. There was no evidence against me whatsoever. My lawyer said that if he built a defense strategy, he would be in jail next to me. So I left Egypt.
– How does it feel to be an exile?
I never treated myself as a victim. But the longer it goes on, the more painful it becomes. You get homesick; you feel the pressure of injustice. Your life has changed completely—your children are growing up, but you haven’t seen them for a while. It takes a lot of self-discipline, keeping focused on my work. I feel I’m in a much better situation than many. Other scholars are languishing in jail, being exposed to excessive treatments and torture.
– Why do you think the universities are suffering such harsh treatment under the current government?
Universities and students are usually at the forefront of protests and free inquiry. So they have been hounded by the regime for the past three years. There is a deliberate effort to subdue society into conformity, to demobilize society and reassert the grip of the military over public life. Twenty-four students have been shot dead on campus, out of a total of 300 students dead over the past 3 years. Also over 5,000 students have been detained; currently 3,000 are in jail. Despite all the denials of the regime, a few months ago the minister of the interior mentioned that they had allowed 3,462 students to take their exams, which means there are at least that many in detention. In addition, 53 faculty members have been dismissed. Thirteen have been shot dead.
–The government has changed laws and regulations governing the universities?
After the (2011) revolution the Egyptians managed to make some gains concerning the independence of the university. Most of those have been reversed. For example, the [Egyptian] president now appoints the university presidents and deans. They are not elected as they used to be after the revolution. The law now allows the presence of the security forces on campus. They also designated the university facilities as military installations. There are now 140 students who are going before military tribunals.
Moreover, you now need approval from the state to travel abroad for academic reasons, like attending a conference. A number of subjects have been banned for research. Two Ph.D.s have been revoked and the doctoral supervisors in both cases were sent to disciplinary hearings.
– Has the government been hostile toward foreign scholars who study Egypt?
Foreign researchers are deported from Egypt; some are denied entry. In the Regini case we need to find the truth about what happened, and most indications point to the state security. [Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge University graduate student doing research in Egypt, disappeared in Cairo on January 25. His badly tortured body was found in a ditch on February 3]. But Regini was not a unique case. We also have our Egyptian Reginis.
– What can be done?
Raising awareness, that’s number one: Using objective, reliable facts and statistics and bringing them to the public. Constant monitoring of violations and violators is extremely important. Another thing—and I know this sounds very idealistic—is visitation. We must insist as a community of scholars on the right to visit our colleagues in these prisons to see their conditions. This creates a lot of pressure. My suggestion is, let’s look at these as human-rights cases, and de-politicize them.
– Is there any hope for Egypt?
In five years Egypt will be much better. This is not just false hope. Battles are won or lost. But eventually—and this is the lesson that all dictators refuse to learn—they will come to justice and they will have to pay. Look at [Chile’s former military dictator] Pinochet. Look at Argentina’s last military dictator [former general Reynaldo Bignone] and former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre, [both were convicted of human-rights violations just within the last two weeks]—even after 30 years they became accountable. There will be a Transitional Justice process, for example Truth and Reconciliation committees. This is very tedious and difficult, but it’s necessary in order to achieve, in the end, national reconciliation and peace, but of course not under this regime.
– Can democracy work in the Middle East?
What’s taking place in Tunisia, what took place in Turkey at some point, Morocco, and other places, shows that democracy can thrive in the Arab World. So the idea of Arab exceptionalism is very colonialist, it’s very condescending. All I can say is please, let’s not lose hope. It’s my feeling that at some point the military will come to a realization that it cannot manage the country and it will have to take two steps back and allow for the resumption of a civilian government.
* This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.