A few weeks ago, someone doing what I do — field research in Egypt — was murdered. Giulio Regeni, an Italian citizen, was a PhD student at Cambridge University studying Egyptian labor movements. He went missing on Jan. 25, the fifth anniversary of the 2011 uprising, and his remains were discovered a few days later, bearing burn marks, broken bones and signs of electrocution. These injuries have been interpreted as indications of torture, as they resemble those of many Egyptians who have confronted the country’s security forces in the past. Facing what could be the first deliberate police killing of a foreign researcher in Egypt, the Middle East Studies Association has recently sent out a travel warning to its members.
What are we to make of this tragedy? Why was he killed? And are other researchers at risk?
The news of Regeni’s death comes as a deep shock for anyone who has conducted research in Egypt. Like him, I have interviewed activists from independent trade unions. And like many other non-Egyptian nationals, I subscribed to the widely held but seldom stated assumption that my foreigner status offered some protection from extreme forms of physical abuse. This terrible event points to both the limits of that sense of comfort and the ever-narrowing space for researchers, both foreign and Egyptian.
It is not immediately obvious why authorities may have considered Regeni threatening. He researched independent trade unions, a seemingly innocuous topic in a country where the Left is not only weak but also hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, the regime’s main opponent. Moreover, the junior scholar was not the only academic on the ground studying sensitive issues. Researchers have interviewed opposition activists under the current military regime, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, while other scholars have published criticisms of the regime. Yet it was this young PhD student who met such a brutal fate. Why?
Since 2011, I have studied how Egyptian security forces perceive threats and select their targets. I have cataloged acts of police coercion, consulted administrative documents and spoken with political activists, including labor leaders and former members of the security forces. My research has taught me two things. The first is that security forces pay close attention to signs of politicization among the labor movement. Under the regime of then-president Hosni Mubarak, security forces established a sharp distinction between political and economic types of unrest. Labor protests were often tolerated or ignored as long as protesters did not make political claims. In parallel, political activists were also allowed to protest and criticize the regime as long as they did not attempt to stir up the masses for anti-government ends.
Second, the security forces have distinct ideas about the causes of popular mobilization. Like social scientists, the Egyptian authorities developed theories for the explosion of popular unrest in 2011. While political scientists have emphasized the spontaneity, courage and agency of ordinary citizens during the 18 days of the 2011 uprising, Egyptian security forces believe that the unrest was steered by well-organized political forces capable of manipulating the average citizen for political ends. In the summer of 2011, when I asked a former member of the security forces why the anti-Mubarak protesters had succeeded, he blamed foreign conspirators, particularly the Palestinian group Hamas. Such allegations of outside forces causing political instability in Egypt are common in the Egyptian media.
In the United States, these views are often dismissed as classic authoritarian propaganda. However, my research suggests that such anxieties are real and inform the way the Egyptian regime perceives threats. In particular, they make security forces highly attentive to ties between “foreign elements” and “mobilizable” sectors of society.
It is possible that Regeni’s research activities were misinterpreted as groundwork for preparing a new uprising. He had built ties with local actors, attended meetings with labor activists and spoke excellent Arabic — an essential skill for a researcher, yet one that unfortunately tends to raise suspicions. He appears to have felt a personal investment in labor issues and authored articles critical of the current regime led by President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in an Italian newspaper. One article, published posthumously, offers an insightful analysis of the state of independent unions in Egypt.
Contrary to what has been suggested elsewhere, his critical views were probably less consequential than his connections, contacts and careful on-the-ground reporting.
Regeni disappeared at the height of a security sweep aimed at forestalling any protest on Jan. 25. In the days preceding this anniversary, security forces searched 5,000 apartments in central Cairo, a sweep that reportedly followed months of intelligence gathering about “pro-democracy activists inside and outside the country, including foreigners.” Perhaps Regeni’s kidnapping was ordered after lengthy surveillance. Or perhaps he was simply picked up on the street by twitchy officers while on the way to a meet a friend, only awakening suspicions while in detention. In any event, the fact that he was “interrogated for up to seven days” points to the likelihood that security forces viewed him as a threat.
Egypt holds a special place among scholars of the Middle East. Not only is it where a large number of today’s non-Arab experts received their language training, but this country has also been a central site for developing theories of politics in the Arab world, including studies of economic development, party politics under authoritarian rule, and Islamist politics and movements. Such works leverage in-depth fieldwork and local knowledge, the acquisition of which is becoming increasingly risky.
The death of Regeni highlights the difficulties of managing one’s safety in Egypt’s current climate. In theory, researchers could mitigate risks by eschewing activities that may be perceived of as having a political or mobilizing component. In practice, however, making this distinction is highly difficult. Fieldwork requires navigating an environment in which the police rarely believe that researchers do research for its own sake. It also requires precisely the activities that, as this recent tragedy illustrates, feeds into the very anxieties of the security forces — speaking Arabic and building actual ties with people. Regeni was not careless. And that is perhaps most worrying for both scholars and the future of the field.
Jean Lachapelle is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto and an associate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Middle East Initiative.