A few months after I started working in the Egyptian National Archives for my research on Mohamed Ali’s army, I stumbled on a treasure: 63 files labeled “Levant Documents,” containing valuable correspondence on the Levantine campaign led by Ibrahim Pasha, Mohamed Ali’s son, from 1831 to 1840. One document that caught my eye was a map of enemy Ottoman positions around Jaffa, on which Ibrahim’s forces were preparing to march.
The precision and quality of the map gave me pause. Drawn in color, it showed the terrain of the area, an outline of the city’s borders and enemy troop deployments. I wondered where the Egyptian army had acquired such cartographic expertise.
It turned out the map was drafted by a certain Mohammed Kani, if I recall correctly — this was 25 years ago, after all. I looked for more information about Kani and found he was part of the student missions sent to Europe. He’d just come back and was immediately sent to the Levantine front. I found two more of his maps. The first was of a proposed postal system to connect Ibrahim’s command in the Levant and Cairo, with 30 points along a route that would deliver correspondence between Mohammed Ali and his son. The second map dated to 1838 or 1839, at the height of the crisis with the Sublime Porte. At the time, Ibrahim had suggested to his father that they reinforce positions on Egypt’s northern border by building naval fortifications across the Delta coastline. Kani drafted the map illustrating Ibrahim’s proposal.
I made a list of documents I wanted to photocopy, including these three maps, and took it to get the copying permit. I shortly received an unequivocal answer: photocopying maps is prohibited.
“Why?” I asked.
“But these are maps from the 19th century, they have no security or military value.”
“These are the directives.” I was told that a week before a colleague had wanted to photocopy a map of the Azbakiya neighborhood and his request was denied, too.
Much later, I discovered the reason for the anxiety over maps. After the Egyptian-Israeli border dispute over Taba following the 1979 peace treaty, the Egyptian team, which included historian Younan Labib Rizk, proved Egypt’s claim to the town using documents that showed Egypt exercised sovereignty over it. The documentation was supported by old maps, prompting the security apparatus to suddenly understand the significance of the holdings in the National Archives, particularly the importance of maps for national security.
Since the archive’s collection is not thoroughly catalogued, making it impossible to know exactly what information is contained in its documents and maps, instructions were issued prohibiting the photocopying of any maps at all. As the Egyptian proverb has it, shut the door that lets in the breeze and set your mind at ease. The security logic seems to suggest that one cannot be sure that a researcher working on Islamic endowments in the 15th century isn’t really a spy — he might be looking for maps of Siwa, Halayib and Shalatin, the Yaghbub Oasis, or Tiran and Sanafir. Since we have border disputes with all our neighbors, not only can you not copy maps related to any border issue, you can’t conduct research on any topic vaguely connected to borders.
We researchers thus have a hard time and our work is constantly stalled. The security logic doesn’t stop at maps and borders. It casts suspicion on every topic. An Egyptian colleague working on Mamluk history was denied a research permit. An American colleague was denied a permit for a project on the history of private presses in the 19th century. A student of mine studies the history of the Labor Corps during World War I; his permit was also rejected. The best example, though, is that of a student who wanted to study the history of British irrigation expertise in Egypt in the late 19th century. I was determined to find out why his permit was denied. The official’s response (I paraphrase) was:
Here’s someone studying the history of irrigation, and we have a dispute with Ethiopia over the Nile waters. We have no doubt that this student is honest and isn’t a spy, but how can we be sure that his thesis won’t fall into malicious hands, that it won’t contain information that could harm us — for example, info about Ethiopia’s right to the Nile waters? Such details could damage our negotiating position. Of course, we know employees at the National Archives are sincere patriots, and the same is true of most professors and students doing research there, but we have considerations that no one understands but us.
This security mentality dominates the National Archives. But we never really know which security body we’re dealing with: National Security? General Intelligence? Military Intelligence? State Security? The responsible agency treats the National Archives like a state archive, not a national archive owned by and serving the public.
Each year, security further tightens its grip and the number of permits granted decreases. Only a handful of researchers make it through. And this is at the National Archives, one of the region’s most significant, richest troves of documents, with its number of holdings estimated in the millions.
While working in the National Archives, I felt I was working in a security agency, not a place of knowledge. Having conducted research in numerous public and university libraries and archives in many other countries, I grasp the importance of security measures. But I also understand the need to serve researchers, most crucially making researchers and students feel that the place is at their service.
The situation at the National Archives is reflected in all public institutions. Their mandate is not to serve the public, but to subject them to constant surveillance.
After so much time spent in the archives, I came to understand how employees there saw us researchers. At best, we’re seen as having too much time on our hands and nothing better to do than waste it poring over some old papers. At worst, we’re seen as spies, coming to steal documents and sell them or extract vital national security information to sell to the enemy.
Once, I was submitting an application for one of my students, backed up with all the requisite documentation (a recommendation letter from the university, a copy of his ID, and the application form containing the research title and the archival units he wanted to consult as well as the time period his research covered). Instead of handing the application to an employee in the reading room, I went directly to the security officer’s office. I’d known him for a while and we had a friendly, mutually respectful relationship. Our conversation went something like this (it was more than 15 years ago):
“Dr. Khaled, what’s the purpose of your research — promotion or to be seconded?”
“I don’t understand, sir,” I said.
“Haven’t you already received your doctorate?”
“Yes, about five years ago.”
“Exactly. So why are you still coming to the reading room? For promotion or to be seconded elsewhere?”
“I’m working on a different topic now that I finished the doctorate. Not for promotion or secondment, but research. I might write an article based on my research.”
“An article, okay. And your students working in the reading room, do you vouch for them?”
“Vouch for them? Of course, they’re some of my best students. It’s my duty to come here with them.”
“Your duty? Who assigned you this duty?”
“No one, I’m speaking figuratively. I’m a professor at New York University and these are foreign students. I’m trying to make the research easier for them and answer any questions they may have to the best of my ability.”
“New York University, where’s that?”
“In New York City, in the US.”
“Which department do you teach in?”
“The Middle Eastern Studies department.”
“Oh, is that under the CIA?”
“No, it has nothing to do with the CIA. It’s a department for the study of the Middle East at New York University. We teach the history of the region, its literature, societies, and cultures to students.”
“Oh, okay. Why?”
“So they can understand its people. Some of them go on to specialize in the region. It’s my mission to attract students to the study of Egypt and to specialize in its history.”
“Your mission? Who assigned you this mission?”
“No one assigned anything, sir. I’m speaking figuratively. We teach all the languages of the region and its countries in the department. Doctoral students might specialize in the study of Turkey, Israel or Morocco, for example. If I can bring them over to the study of Egyptian history, I feel I’ve accomplished my mission.”
“So what’s your mission?”
“To get students to specialize in Egyptian history.”
“So in the end they can write a doctoral thesis and then publish it as a book.”
The man nearly had a heart attack. “Why, doctor?” he shouted. “Why do they publish books about Egypt?!”
I understood his questions. I know his mission is to guard information, not produce knowledge. But I had a chance to explain to him what we do.
“Do you see that shelf over there, sir?” I asked him, pointing to the shelf next to his desk, which held three books.
“Let’s assume these are the three books that exist about Egypt. As far as I’m concerned, I want the shelf to be filled with books about Egypt.”
“But why, doctor? Are you sure what these books will say? Are you sure about what’s in the documents your students look at here? How can you be sure that the books they’ll publish based on them won’t contain something that damages our national security?”
“I can’t be sure. According to you, I can turn up something fishy in any book. But I think Egypt’s interests and national security will flourish when there are more books about Egypt, when there are more researchers specializing in Egypt, and when there’s more knowledge produced about Egypt.”
The conversation ended there. It was clear that the security mentality sensed in the reading room was deeply rooted. It inevitably saw us all as potential spies. They would never understand what our work as researchers is about, let alone value it.
As I’ve written before, this security mentality per se is not the problem. Security has a role, in Egypt as everywhere, to suspect, question and investigate. I live in the US and before that I lived in the UK, and I know that not anything goes there either. In times of crisis, like after September 11, 2001, a whole country can become a police state.
The difference is that the security mentality in countries that respect the public is countered by a mentality that pushes back in the opposite direction, that respects the right to privacy, academic research and free expression. This mentality circumscribes the security mentality with numerous legal and administrative regulations.
In Egypt the security mentality runs amok. Just mentioning national security is enough to shut down a conversation instead of initiating it. Voices defending academic freedom and the freedom of research are few and far between (though brave and strong) — most importantly the March 9 Movement (a working group on university independence), the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Since voices championing academic freedom in Egypt are muffled, the security apparatus dominates academic research.
Researching historical documents in the National Archives requires a security permit, which can take three months or more and get harder to obtain every year. Field research is infinitely more difficult. If a researcher wants to conduct a field study or distribute a questionnaire or opinion survey, she needs the approval of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS). Its very name shows the perceived intimacy of the association between knowledge and the war effort.
Academic research in Egypt has few defenders, and researchers are at constant risk of having their permits revoked, being arrested, or worse.
When I first saw Giulio Regeni’s photo on Facebook, when he was still missing, my heart skipped a beat. A foreign researcher who speaks Arabic fluently, living in Dokki and moving about the city at will, one who is working on the extremely sensitive topic of workers’ right to form independent unions, and one who is also a political activist who writes anti-regime articles for a communist paper under a pseudonym. If the security authorities knew of him, I thought, they would consider him a spy.
But Giulio wasn’t a spy. He was a doctoral student. I never met or corresponded with him, but I know Giulio and know him well. He’s like the students I’ve taught for 20 years. Having now read and become familiar with his work, I can say that not only is he not a spy, he’s an exemplary student, one who loved Egypt and Egyptians and made efforts to help them.
Giulio, like other students I have supervised, was not just a hardworking student who spent years learning a difficult foreign language, getting to know a difficult foreign society, and preparing a dissertation on an unusual, difficult topic. Like his mother told the Italian parliament, Giulio was a young man who was open to the world and interested in issues of the day. He could’ve worked in a bank or newspaper, playing it safe with the difficult foreign language he learned. But Giulio had a cause to defend—championing the downtrodden—and he put his knowledge and efforts in service to this end.
I know and respect this outlook. Throughout my years of teaching at major American universities — Princeton, New York University, Colombia, Harvard — I’ve met students who are smart and hardworking but who also have a cause, theirs being Egypt and its people. In my years of work abroad, I’ve known dozens of students who are passionate about Egypt, write about it, and dedicate their lives to studying it. For them, their period of study in Egypt was the best years of their lives. These are students who graduate, publish great academic works about Egypt, and go on to teaching positions at the best universities. They are our best ambassadors abroad.
These are the students the security authorities view with suspicion and see as spies.
We don’t know what happened to Giulio, except that he was brutally tortured — like Egyptians are tortured, according to his mother. We may never know who tortured and killed him in such a horrific way.
But we know that we’re living one of the worst moments of our modern history and that our rights, liberties and lives are under threat at all times by our own government.
We know that our government, in the name of defending national security, has attacked universities and killed students demonstrating on campus. We know that our government, in the name of defending national security, has shut down the public sphere, appropriated political activity, and prevented people from expressing their opinion and peaceful demonstrating — unless the demonstration’s purpose is to give Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a mandate to do whatever he likes.
We know that our government, in the name of defending national security, is waging war on civil society organizations, accusing them of foreign collaboration, treason and getting rich off foreign funding. But it’s the government itself, specifically the army, that is the biggest beneficiary of foreign funding. No one dares make a peep about that.
We know that our government, in the name of defending national security, has arrested tens of thousands of members of Islamist groups and sentenced hundreds of them to death in trials lasting just a few minutes, trials that dealt a mortal blow to the integrity of the Egyptian judiciary and people’s faith in it.
We know that our government, in the name of defending national security, has arrested hundreds of journalists, writers and political activists, and sentenced them to years in prison.
And we know that our government, after all that, trifled with national security and violated the constitution by ceding sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir without informing the press or consulting parliament.
Our government is insisting on denying us the opportunity to have a referendum on this vital question of national security; instead, our president has told us in no uncertain terms to shut up. In response, we, the people, the true owners of this country, are insisting on knowing what happened to Guilio Regeni and are holding on to our right to be consulted about our own national security.