I will try my best to be as brief and as concise as possible in this piece for more than one reason. First, the whole issue surrounding Giulio Regeni’s death is incredibly distressing, to the extent that I’m incredibly uncomfortable writing about it. Second, this is a newspaper, after all, and its readers are not necessarily willing to tolerate the vast details associated with his death and its significance. Third, after everything that’s been written about the brutal death of Regeni, I hardly doubt that I can come up with anything new. Therefore, this piece is not about human rights violations, or freedom of expression, or the vulgar resurrection of the police state, or even how the Egyptian regime is so adamant in its distortion of the facts and offers half truths; I honestly don’t think anyone is in need of an opinion piece to realise that all those things are an everyday reality in Egypt. This piece is about the significance of Regeni’s death to us researchers, academics, journalists and ordinary Egyptians who have an interest in the sharing of knowledge and the pursuit of truth.
Giulio Regeni’s death reveals a number of patterns that should not go unnoticed. Regeni was not the only researcher subjected to harassment and hostility. Social and political research in Egypt is closely monitored by security institutions and constrained to a ridiculous extent by various measures. Academic research or investigative journalism related to issues like social mobilisation, social movements, contentious politics, Islamic movements, the role of state institutions in the past five years, and human rights violations have been targeted by the state’s security apparatus since 2013. Several international organisations and local NGOs working on those issues were forced to shut down their research projects, change their field of activity or even relocate their entities to other parts in the region.
Egyptian researchers who participate in research workshops or academic conferences are usually stopped and questioned by security institutions or even arrested upon their arrival. Egyptian embassies abroad have tried more than once to stop research workshops and seminars discussing Egypt’s political transition. There was even a notorious television commercial, produced by the Egyptian state, warning of foreigners who come to Egypt to ask questions about Egyptian politics and society because they are obviously secret agents and part of an international espionage conspiracy.
Neither the space nor the venue will allow for a detailed reference to the diverse evidence demonstrating the Egyptian state’s hostility to academic research; but any thorough examination of this evidence will prove that the regime in Egypt has a definite problem with researching social and political issues that it labels “sensitive”. The rationale is simple; one might even say, childishly authoritarian. The justifications offered by Egyptian officials regarding such hostile behaviour are usually related to national interest and security: two amorphous concepts that bend and fold according to the regime’s present vision.
Another brand of justification has to do with foreign interest in Egypt. If the researcher is not Egyptian or if the research is funded by a foreign organisation, then the popular explanation for hostility is based in conspiracy. In fact, it has been said that Regeni’s presence in Egypt was already questionable in the first place: why would an Italian be interested in the Egyptian labour movement if it weren’t for purposes of endangering Egyptian national security! Yes, this is the rationale proffered by the Egyptian state media and unfortunately believed by a large segment of the Egyptian population. In short, the Egyptian regime is capable of tailoring and moulding the concept of national security into the framework that best suits its interests. The only thing that the regime has not done is offer a clear definition of what exactly constitutes national security and what endangers it.
I honestly don’t think that the Egyptian state will ever admit any responsibility in Regeni’s death, but the manner in which he died and the findings of the autopsy report point to a recurring pattern in the practices of Egyptian security institutions since the 1960s. The sudden disappearance; the signs and means of torture; and the discarded, half-naked body are characteristics found across several similar cases in the past 40 years in Egypt. At the same time, even the modality of denial resonates with a historical precedent: denying responsibility and launching bureaucratic investigations. The brutal murder of Regeni should not make us blind to recurring patterns so common in our political history.
Finally, I’m not exactly sure how we, as researchers, academics and journalists, are supposed to act in response to what happened. Should we suspend our research activities? Should we look for research methodologies that do not involve direct interaction with research subjects? Should we work on research questions sanctioned by the state? Should we expect the new parliament to issue legislation stating exactly which academic disciplines and research questions do not endanger national interests and security?
I believe that what we need to do is stand together as researchers, academics, journalists and anyone else who makes their living by raising awareness and pursuing knowledge. We need to unite, not only to uncover what happened to Giulio Regeni and who is responsible for his death, but also to make sure that no one else suffers the same tragedy that befell him.
Ziad A. Akl is a political analyst and sociologist. He is a senior researcher at the Egyptian Studies Unit in Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.