Giulio and the tragic loss of academic freedom

There is no doubt that the recent murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni poses a real threat to political and economic ties between Egypt and Italy. Italy is, after all, considered to be Egypt’s most important economic partner in Europe.

In its Friday issue, the Italian newspaper La Stampa published a photo of the 28-year-old student on its front page, under a headline that read, “Giulio, Egyptian police under accusation.” According to this and other newspapers, the evidence suggests Regeni’s death was a case of intentional murder, rather than an accident. These accounts propose he was arrested on January 25, Police Day, and summoned to a police station for an interrogation that led to his torture and death. The newspapers claim Giulio’s body was kept in one of the morgues until Italian authorities demanded to know what happened to him. Egyptian authorities then, as far as the reports suggest, decided to get rid of the body by dumping it in the desert, claiming Regeni was killed in a road accident.

In addition to the grave repercussions of this tragic incident on Egyptian-Italian relations, it is equally indicative of the dire straits of academic research in Egypt. Regeni’s gruesome murder will definitely harm the country’s reputation and its ability to attract researchers and students. It signifies the dangers that both Egyptian and foreign researchers face in Egypt today.

In reaction, the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) sent a strongly worded letter addressed to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, expressing outrage at the news of Regeni’s apparent torture and murder. In its letter, dated February 4, the committee stated that, “what makes this case even more disturbing is that it is but the most recent, if the most deadly, example of the growing danger posed by the current political climate in Egypt to all those engaged in academic work. We have written to you repeatedly over the past months to express our deep concern regarding a range and number of violations of academic freedom and freedom of expression that would require countless pages to list in full: denial of entry to the country and harassment of numerous scholars and researchers; gross state interference in university student and faculty governance; the dismissals and expulsions of hundreds of students and faculty; the sentencing of academics to death.” The committee added that, “Regeni’s murder, far from an aberration, is in fact a predictable outcome of the progression of state repression of academics and students.”

In spite of its strident tone, MESA’s letter is the least that can be said in reaction to the dire state of academic freedom in Egypt. It also sheds light on the weakness of local oppositional voices in speaking out against the precarious existence that our universities, and educational and cultural institutes, are subjected to. With the exception of a few civil society organizations, most significantly the March 9 Movement for the Independence of Universities and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, there are hardly any other voices that speak in defense of academic freedom and its significance.

The truth of the matter is that academic freedom and freedom of thought have always been under threat everywhere in the world. Such freedoms are in constant need of valiant defense against attempts to restrict them under the pretexts of the preservation of “societal norms” or “national security.”

A quick glimpse at countries like Turkey, Israel and the United States shows the extent to which academic freedom is constantly under threat. In Turkey, hundreds of university professors are being investigated for signing a petition against the government’s policy towards Kurds. In Israel, academic freedom is almost non-existent for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian students and professors. In the United States, there is a situation in which corporatization has encroached on university campuses, eating away the rights of non-tenured professors. We are thereby in need of the defense of academic freedom in order for students and professors, who are paying high fees for information and to conduct research, to triumph.

That being said, it is worth noting that the threat to academic freedom in Egypt now supersedes that of other countries. This is not only due to what the Egyptian state deems a “war on terrorism,” which warrants all freedoms until it ends, but also due to the absence of defenders of academic freedom. This comes at a time when voices that claim that academic freedom is an unnecessary luxury — or go as far as calling it a goblet of poison — are being heard loud and clear.

Amid the lack of defenders of academic freedom, the American University in Cairo, where Giulio was a visiting scholar, posted a shameful statement to extend its condolences for his “passing away recently” — Security forces have tightened their grip on all aspects of academic life. We can see how security personnel at all Egyptian universities have extended their authority over university campuses through approving faculty appointments, deciding whether conferences, seminars and public lectures are to be held or not, and granting faculty members travel permits. As we all know, anyone conducting social science research that requires fieldwork must get permission from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS). As is evident by its name, CAPMAS reflects a vision of information as a war effort. These restrictions apply to Egyptian researchers, even those employed in public universities. We can imagine then how state security must have viewed a foreign researcher who spoke Arabic fluently, was present in the street without a permit, and, when questioned, revealed that he was conducting research on the state of workers and their syndicates following the January 25 revolution.

We are not certain of the events surrounding the death of Giulio Regeni, but we know for sure that his murder is a tragic manifestation of how students and researchers have absolutely no rights in Egypt. It is true that the Egyptian constitution stipulates the freedom of universities (article 21), and the freedom of scientific research (article 23), but the reality is that the over-riding powers of state security forces have led to the systematic violation of constitutional rights. Researchers and academics have at best fallen suspect to the whims of security officers, and at worse fallen prey to their brutality.

I understand the need for state security agencies to suspect, investigate and gather information on what is going on in the country. This is, after all, their role and duty. I also understand and accept that these agencies have an added responsibility to curb lurking national threats. But state security agencies must abide by the law and the constitution. They must be subjected to public scrutiny and be held accountable. An outlook that encourages scientific research, empowers researchers and students to approach original and critical subject matters must exist to balance state security’s skeptical mindset. Scientific research does not flourish by ruminating on the past or recycling information.

Therefore, state security agencies must lay their hands off our academic institutions. We must separate public mobilization from statistics, for the logic behind such association is long gone. Both society and the state need to perceive academic research as a necessity, not a luxury. Academic freedom must be understood as the basis for the advancement of society, rather than being yet another Western term that we parrot. Academics, including university professors, students, and researchers must hold on to the value of academic freedom, not only by demanding that state agencies stop harassing and monitoring them, but also through requiring them to facilitate their work. Without holding on to the freedom of research and expression, we, foreigners and Egyptians, will remain vulnerable and susceptible to the gruesome destiny that Giulio Regeni faced.

This article was originally published in Arabic on albedaiah.

Khaled Fahmy 

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