Ten years ago, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was a foreign student at the US Army War College. In writing a short report entitled “Democracy in the Middle East” that was critical of both the US and Egyptian governments, he exercised his right to freedom of expression. As foreign academics in Egypt today, we deserve the same.
Most foreign academics who have been detained, arrested, deported, denied entry to Egypt, or had bogus charges brought against them over the past few years have chosen to remain silent. The silence of foreign researchers stands in contrast to the outspoken defiance of other categories of people who have been harassed by the regime. When Egyptian activists, journalists, human rights advocates, writers, artists, academics, or trade unionists have been bullied or attacked, they have usually fought back, or at least used the media to draw attention to their plight. Foreign researchers in Egypt, however, have almost always chosen to keep a low profile. We know that as academics, we have to choose between fighting bureaucratic obscurantism to obtain research permits, or borderline illegality. We know that as foreigners living in a country with a long history of external intervention, suspicion of foreigners is not entirely unfounded. We know that we reside here at the pleasure of whoever is in power.
The American University in Cairo (AUC), where I have been teaching since 2008, has also been notably silent when their students or faculty have been threatened in the past. Top-level administrators have repeatedly claimed that working back channels on our behalf with their contacts in the Egyptian government is more effective than speaking out publicly in our defense. AUC’s strategy of appeasing the authorities culminated in a tweet that announced that Giulio Regeni had “passed away” – when it was clear from autopsy reports that he had been brutally tortured to death. The European parliament has referred to his murder as an “assassination.”
Regeni’s murder has led to a crisis in European-Egyptian relations. It has also sparked a debate about research safety and academic freedom at AUC – where Regeni was a visiting scholar. Several hundred students and faculty recently signed an open letter to the AUC administration demanding that they protect our right to academic freedom. It is too early to tell whether AUC will change course and become an outspoken defender of freedom of expression.
The Egyptian authorities have not admitted any wrongdoing, nor have they embraced the notion of freedom of expression or the importance of research and education. On the contrary, in a recent speech, Sisi admonished Egyptians to only listen to him. Farid Khamis, a Mubarak-era business tycoon and chairperson of the board of trustees at the British University in Egypt, has said publicly that intellectuals are the most dangerous segment of any society. “Philosophizing,” in his opinion, could lead to the destruction of the state.
The strategy of remaining silent, of appeasing the authorities, has obviously failed. It failed to protect us, and it failed to prevent Regeni from being murdered. Because silence has failed, I have chosen to speak out. I would like to add to the debate by demonstrating how President Sisi himself – as a foreign student in the United States – has exercised his right to freedom of expression, without fear of being arrested, tortured, or accused of being a foreign spy.
Back when he was still an unknown brigadier general, Sisi studied at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania. On March 15, 2006 – ten years ago to the day – he submitted a 12-page report entitled “Democracy in the Middle East.” Originally classified, the report was released to the public through a FOIA request on August 8, 2013. For a brief moment, the media were tantalized at the prospect of what the thesis could tell us about the man who had just staged an armed overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi. One week later, Egypt was convulsed by a level of violence unprecedented in its post-colonial history: the massacres at Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda squares, which Sisi presided over as minister of defense, general commander of the armed forces, chair of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and deputy prime minister for security affairs. In the aftermath, his report was soon forgotten.
On the tenth anniversary of his report, however, it is worth revisiting, not because of its academic rigor or because he made any particularly novel arguments. Rather, it is significant because he made a number of statements which were directly critical of both the US government, as well as what he called “the remains of dictatorial and autocratic regimes” in the Middle East.
How did Sisi exercise academic freedom? For one, Sisi criticized the US invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation – which was still ongoing when he wrote his report: “If Iraq is perceived as an American puppet, then other countries may not be enticed to move towards democracy.” He advocated that the Bush Administration should “quickly reduce the level of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan” and instead provide economic support to other countries in the region, such as Egypt.
Sisi could criticize the United States while studying in the United States as an Egyptian citizen. Indeed, he could criticize the US military at a US military academy – and not fear any repercussions. He could also speak out against his own government.
Sisi criticized former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in four broad areas: The security apparatus (“the security forces of a nation need to develop a culture that demonstrates commitment to a nation rather than a ruling party”), economic inequality (“those in power seem to be living in luxury while the common man struggles to get by”), state control of the media (“the media will be an obstacle to a democratic form of government until it can be trusted to represent more than the government’s perspective”), and the high illiteracy rates in the region (“the uneducated population, defined as those who cannot read or write, approaches 30-45 percent”).
In short, Sisi exercised freedom of expression – including the ability to criticize both his own Egyptian government as well as the US government – without being detained, arrested, tortured, or accused of being a foreign spy. To be sure, this is not to claim that academic freedom in the United States is without flaws – as the case of Steven Salaita makes clear. Nor am I claiming that Sisi himself is or ever was an academic researcher. But no PhD is necessary in order to criticize one’s government or exercise freedom of expression.
Sisi went beyond vocally criticizing the US and Egyptian government. He also engaged in advocacy. Perhaps shocking from today’s vantage point, Sisi advocated for the West to support – not the military, not the regime – but education. He ended his report by asking “the rest of the world” to support “democratic values” in the Middle East. The final sentence of his thesis reads: “Investing in educational means would be a good starting point.”
In the fall of 2008, two-and-a-half years after Sisi submitted his report, the American University in Cairo relocated to a 260-acre campus, which was funded to a large extent by USAID. By chance, this was also when I began teaching as an assistant professor in the sociology unit of AUC. I was hired in the tenure line previously held by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who, because of his opposition to the Mubarak regime, was sentenced to two years of prison for “defaming Egypt” in 2008, after which he was granted bail, but was unable to return to Egypt for a number of years after. Since 2008, I have witnessed how the research environment has grown increasingly hostile. Until now, while AUC claims to be “Egypt’s global university” and “the cultural and intellectual hub of Cairo,” the cost of operating in a hostile research environment have been transferred entirely to the students and faculty. We hope this will change.
Regeni will never be able to speak about what happened to him. He will never be able to speak about the research he was doing on independent trade unions. His assassination has rendered him silent. But the silence of the dead speaks volumes. And it should not render the rest of us silent.
If Sisi would recall his days in Pennsylvania, perhaps he would come to realize that academic freedom is not a conspiracy. It is not a Western invention. It is a basic right practiced by Sisi himself while he was studying at the US Army War College without fear of repercussions. As foreign academics in Egypt, we deserve the same.