Global Development Institute Blog

By Tanja Müller

The news from Egypt will send shivers around the spines of all those who try to uphold the value of in-depth, in-country fieldwork as, to use Mark Duffield’s term, an ‘art of being in the world’. On a different level, it is yet another indication of the brutal character of a regime that was created in a military coup but soon enough embraced by a majority of those same ‘Western’ countries keen to lecture the rest of the world endlessly on ‘good governance’.

The news, while not totally unexpected, still came as a shock to many: The body of Giulio Regeni, a 28-old Italian PhD student at the Department of Politics and International Studies (Polis) at the University of Cambridge and visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo (AUC), who had disappeared on 25 January this year, was found. It lay on the side of the Cairo-Alexandria Road on the outskirts of Cairo, marked by multiple stab wounds and cigarette burns according to state prosecutor Ahmed Nagi. Additional reports indicated signs of torture and indications of a slow death, while an official Egyptian spokesperson first suggested Regeni had died in a travel accident!

The night Giulio disappeared, the 25th of January, was the anniversary of the start of the uprising in 2011 against former President Hosni Mubarak, the night that might be considered the start of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Egypt. Then welcomed in the ‘West’, over time it was viewed with more and more suspicion when the version of political Islam propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood under the short-lived presidency of Mohammed Morsi triumphed in elections. When Morsi was ousted in a military coup and many of his followers imprisoned or worse, the initial chill in the relationship with coup-leader and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was quickly followed by welcoming open arms. After all, Egypt matters, economically to many ‘Western’ countries and companies, and due to its strategic and political role in the Arab world. Thus, David Cameron happily shook hands with al-Sisi, Egypt’s new oppressive strongman, on the steps of Downing Street quite recently, smiles all around. Britain remains the largest foreign investor in Egypt according to the BBC, and while many features of the current government might cause outrage within the human rights lobby, official British politics was content with some mild criticism of the detention of three Al Jazeera journalists, accused by the authorities of supporting terrorism. The fact that hundreds of people disappear on a routine basis for apparently no reason was conveniently ignored – of course not only in Britain but the wider ‘Western’ world. More generally, the way in which al-Sisi and his encourage orchestrate and manipulate the media could be observed up close during an earlier visit by the Egyptian president to Germany, a visit that was equally dominated by economic and other mutual interests.

What will happen now that one of the disappeared was a student in the UK and of Italian nationality? Almost ironically, an Italian business delegation was visiting Egypt when Giulio’s body was found, a delegation with representatives of around 60 companies that had raised high hopes among Egyptian officials for investment in its languishing economy. It cut its visit short and the Egyptian ambassador to Italy was summoned amid a harsh note of protest and a demand for answers by the Italian government. Whether there are any longer-term repercussions for Egypt’s relationship with Europe remains to be seen.

Maybe we will never know what really happened on the night Giulio disappeared – a night full of heavy policy presence in Cairo because of the protest anniversary date, if he was simply at the wrong time in the wrong place, or whether his ‘disappearance’ was part of the government crackdown on those who look behind the scenes and fight for their freedom and rights. Giulio’s research focused on a topic that has become sensitive in the climate of fear that dominates in the country: trade union and labour rights. He might thus have been targeted deliberately like the many Egyptians who fall foul of a detention policy whose main feature is the secrecy around those who simply vanish without traces – without the wider world taking much notice, usually. As a tweet on the University of Cambridge twitter-feed that announced Giulio’s death stated: ‘Welcome to the daily routine of living in the Arab world …”.

Apart from having exposed the nasty nature of the Egyptian regime, the death of a student while conducting fieldwork is the nightmare of any university and of those involved in supervision of projects in distant places. I for once am always relieved when ‘my’ students return safely, as even with all precautions unexpected things do happen – and in many ways form some of the most valuable parts of overseas fieldwork, as they often provide great contributions to our understanding of the wider world. Already, in the increasingly security-obsessed and risk averse environment that characterises many UK universities, it becomes more and more difficult to obtain permission for what were once routine research activities. But especially in times like this, when all over Europe the nastier agendas of the political right bent on exclusion and vilification of ‘the other’ are not only on the rise, but where views formerly regarded as extremist have become mainstream politics, grounded fieldwork that challenges hegemonic narratives is more needed than ever.

See also the coverage in The Mancunian, Academics demand justice after death of Italian student in Egypt.

This article was first posted on Tanja Müller’s Aspiration & Revolution blog.