On February 4th I spoke at a seminar for the ‘Truth for Giulio Regeni’ campaign organized by the University of Cambridge UCU branch.
I spoke alongside Taher, an Egyptian doctor who had been imprisoned and tortured by the Sisi regime for his activism as a junior doctor.
Listening to Taher matter of factly describe the horror of people ‘being disappeared’, was traumatic. Sometimes these people return, sometimes dead bodies are found. Listening to Taher describe the torture methods the Egyptian authorities use – he made it clear he was not talking about beatings, they employ medieval methods of torture – made me wonder if the UUK delegation who visited Egypt last year had ever met someone like Taher who had personally suffered under this regime.
He told us that every year since the Arab Spring revolutions, the Egyptian police organise a sort of commemorative swoop of activists around the time of the anniversary. This is to serve as a constant reminder to anyone even thinking of considering revolt again.
Among those who are ‘disappeared’ are academics and students. Free speech, the core of academia, is problematic to the Egyptian authorities.
Giulio Regeni was one of these students. A Cambridge PhD student from Italy, he was out in Egypt conducting fieldwork for his research. He disappeared on January 25th 2016 and his tortured body was found just outside Cairo on February 2nd 2016. The Italian government have since named Egyptian agents as suspects in his murder.
For context, 12 UK institutions visited Egypt last year with a view to broker closer relationships with them. One of these was my own employer, the University of Liverpool. Our VC signed a memorandum of understanding which would allow core collaborative research with Egyptian academics – which we all support – but worryingly went on to agree to greater mobility to Egypt for our staff and students and the potential to open a University of Liverpool campus in Egypt.
At the University of Liverpool, we protested when a campus in Egypt was suggested. We knew what had happened to Giulio Regeni and we were highly concerned that profit, as opposed to the guaranteed safety of our staff and students, was at the heart of this deal. We contacted UCU colleagues at the University of Cambridge and worked with them to expose our concerns in the press. An open letter generated around 200 signatures from senior academics and others in a very short period of time. The letter was published in The Guardian.
Fortunately, after this level of publicity from our campaign, the University of Liverpool decided not to go ahead with an Egyptian campus.
However, we know other institutions in the UK are considering setting up campuses in Egypt.
Collective campaigning works. If your institution is considering sending staff or students to Egypt, contact me to discuss how you can consult with them on arranging additional safety measures or if necessary, stop them putting profit before people.
We do not want genuine, collaborative research with our Egyptian colleagues to end, if anything we need to work with them more to ensure their voices are heard outside of their own country. We also know some research requires fieldwork in Egypt and that should be possible too.
The main focus of the ‘Truth for Giulio Regeni’ campaign is to keep a spotlight on the atrocities that took place, and to ensure we are pushing institutions into developing additional safety measures for anyone who has to visit Egypt as part of their work/research.
However, under the current regime, we do not believe satellite campuses in Egypt are a good idea.
If you would like to get involved in the ‘Truth for Giulio Regeni’ campaign, contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.