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Giulio Regeni, our nation and social research

Days before the first anniversary of his disappearance, Egyptian state television posted a video on January 22 featuring Giulio Regeni, the Italian PhD student who was found tortured and murdered on February 3, 2016.

In the video, Regeni, who researched trade unions, was in a conversation with a man identified as Mohamed, a representative of the street vendors syndicate, about a grant to be given by a British donor agency for a certain project. In the video, set in a local coffee shop, Mohamed is trying to convince Regeni to use the money for personal reasons, while Regeni tells him he can’t do this, as the money should sponsor a project proposed by the syndicate.

The video was shot on January 6, 2016, days before Regeni’s disappearance and death, according to Italian investigators. The same Mohamed denounced Regeni to security agencies, accusing him of being a spy. After denying it for months, the Egyptian prosecutor finally admitted to Italian investigators that Regeni was being watched by security before his death.

The accusations leveled against Regeni and others of being a spy working for the West based on social science research are to be somewhat expected in the highly securitized and policed Egyptian context. Yet, while the video may have been broadcast to capture popular imagination, with the intention of viewers honing in on words like “foreign,” or “money” and relating them to spying and desiring to destabilize the nation, it hit a totally different chord among social researchers.

Like many of us, Regeni believed in the need to understand lived realities as they happen (‘3ala al-tabi’a), through daily observations, informal discussions, open-ended interviews, debates and daily practices. He probably thought that to reach a nuanced understanding of the situation, it is important to learn what people do, not only what they say they do. He certainly believed in people as agents of history, actors in the transformation of their own environments, interpreters of their own space and place. He probably wanted to hear from them, to understand their priorities as emerging trade unionists, and maybe to link them with trade unionists in other parts of the world with more established histories of trade unionism, like England. He maybe believed that the experiences of workers have no national boundaries, that a street vendor in Cairo may share similar concerns to a street vendor in Buenos Aires, that they could learn from one another and possibly support each another.

In today’s Egypt, the simple act of doing this kind of social research is alarming enough for someone to be harmed.

Much of what has been said and written in Giulio’s memory speaks to his practice as an engaged social researcher. The terms that guide relationships between researchers and their research participants usually have complex dynamics, with participants often perceiving themselves to be powerless and in need of support. This poses a dilemma for social researchers, especially when conducting research on issues relating to opposing or resisting deeply rooted structural issues. Some choose to remain distant from their participants, whereas others, like Regeni, decide to be more engaged, and to collaborate with their participants to address local needs, not just add to academic knowledge. In recent years it has become more of a social obligation for researchers to give something back to the communities they study.

This kind of engagement is hard to grasp in a country that doesn’t generally value the significance of the social sciences, and sees it as potentially threatening. Regeni paid a high price for his engagement.

Egypt’s nationalistic politics have restricted social science research, limiting the ability to explore new ways of understanding political, economic and social realities and phenomena. This issue was taken on by several anthropologists, such as Reem Saad and Hania Sholkamy, who have written about the criminalization of researchers for supposedly “defaming the nation’s image.” In the early 1990s, Saad was attacked for collaborating on a film titled, “Marriage Egyptian Style,” because it presented the “wrong” image of Egyptian women.

Researchers in Egypt have paid the price in different forms because of this kind of scrutiny. In 2011, Marie Duboc, a researcher on the workers’ movement at the American University in Cairo, was denied entry at Cairo airport and deported back to Paris.

This state-engineered politics has been internalized by society, leading to public mistrust of social science researchers. In 2014, French analyst Alain Greiche was siting in an upscale coffeehouse in Cairo with a columnist and a student discussing political issues, when a woman sitting at a neighboring table stood up furiously and accused them of destroying the country. Minutes later, the police came in and interrogated them.

Working with interlocutors, the locus of social science research, but also of journalism and NGO practitioners, has become a dubious endeavor in Egypt, and has necessitated bravery, when it should be the norm.

Regeni’s brutal murder reveals the cruelty of our current situation, and is not as distant from us as may be perceived.

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Yasmine M. Ahmed