On Punishability – Researching in Egypt after Regeni

“One must punish exactly enough to prevent repetition”                     Foucault

On February 1, 2016, friends posted messages with Giulio Regeni’s photo and the hashtag #WhereisGiulio. I wondered to myself if this was the way to find him. That evening in Cairo I stayed up late tracking on social media the story of Ahmad Galal, someone else who had been forcibly disappeared. His family heard nothing about him until his body was found at Zeinhom morgue two weeks later. I obsessed over his photos and visited the profile pages of his wife and sister. His wife wore the niqab, and I suspected he might have belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. Galal’s murder evoked in me a strong feeling of anxiety.

A few days later, on February 4, I read an article shared on the Facebook page of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm stating that the Italian minister of economic development had cancelled her visit to Egypt after the announcement of Regeni’s murder. On the same day, international and local press revealed that Regeni had been tortured to death.

I went into shock. With Regeni’s death, my former empathy with Ahmad Galal turned into fear for my own wellbeing. Profession, class, political ideology and my not being Egyptian are factors that shaped my identification with Regeni, but not with Galal, an Egyptian citizen. During the first two months after the murder, these identity claims continuously shifted. As the release of more details on Regeni’s torture and murder heightened a sense of fear among many non-Egyptian academics, I heard of a few leaving the country and others not allowed to travel to Egypt by their universities. In identifying with Regeni as a fellow academic, like other academics who no longer felt safe living in Egypt, I felt a sense of vulnerability. A vulnerability that was less a reflection of weakness than a response to the threat of violence.

At that point, I wanted to leave too. Committed as I am to serious scholarship and to my research into political memory and the role of the student movement in the 1970s in Egypt’s politics, I wasn’t sure about continuing with it if it might jeopardize my life or the life of my interlocutors. I was locked with the rush of contradictory emotions and desires. To stay meant taking on a high risk, one that I felt unable to evaluate. The experience of potentially being on the receiving end of a force that is brutal — and seemingly arbitrary and mysterious — shifted my experience of fear.

I made the decision to stay. My love for Egypt and its people, my sense of my Arabness and an ethical responsibility to live through what Egyptians live on a daily basis, were factors that anchored me in place. In the first few weeks I kept a low profile: I reduced my encounters to friends and friends of friends and did not share details about my work except with people who I am very close to.

It was the experience of living in fear as a potential victim that sensitized me to the importance of emotions as an ethnographic tool

I stayed at home for long hours, only going out when necessary. I felt as if I was slowing down my research and was concerned that it was being compromised, not yet aware that staying at home was internal to the research process and not external to it. I evaded risk not by leaving Egypt but by the “forming of a home or enclosure” as Sara Ahmed puts it. Going inwards allowed me to experience some of the mechanisms of fear. Trust and suspicion became key emotions guiding my interactions. I found myself giving fake names to order food or to random people in bookstores. I mistrusted everyone except friends whom I have known for a while and people that I had met through them.

On February 6, I pushed myself and joined a vigil outside the Italian Embassy in Cairo to protest Giulio’s killing. The Facebook event was under the slogan, “He is one of us, he died like us.” On February 17, I wrote a Facebook post in Arabic asking, “Where does the security man dwell: in the head or in the stomach?” I was seeking to locate the fear in my body. I felt it not only in my thoughts trying to rationalize my fear and censor my behavior, but also in my guts. Feeling fear in the stomach is surely different from feeling it in the knees, maybe leaving you unable to stand or in the bladder, maybe losing control over the liquid it carries.

It led me to look into the complexity of fear as a tool of governance and its possible effects beyond its ability to make the one who fears submit to power

It is difficult to generalize my experience of fear or to make it speak on behalf of people whom I do not pretend to represent. What I want to highlight here is how this individual and bodily awareness of fear of being a potential target allowed me to approach my interlocutors’ experiences more thoroughly. It led me to look into the complexity of fear as a tool of governance and its possible effects beyond its ability to make the one who fears submit to power. I became interested in how the experiences and narratives of fear, among other emotions, are constructed within communities of dissent and what individual and collective dynamics they help to generate.

It took me a while to grow out of fear. Regeni’s murder shifted my position from that of a bystander who felt the general mood of fear through empathy with victims, to a potential suspect who was vulnerable to punishment. This sense of punishability led me to differentiate between experiencing fear as an observer and living in fear as a visceral disciplinary experience. With the first kind of fear, I did not feel personally threatened but rather touched by the pain of others who were under threat. It is the second kind of fear, that of living in fear as a potential victim, that sensitized me to the importance of emotions as an ethnographic tool. I used my own fear to ask different questions and to probe on how the emotional is used and narrated.

This leads me to the concept of witnessing. Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes defines witnessing as a position of the anthropologist “inside human events as a responsive, reflexive, and morally committed being, one who will ‘take sides’ and make judgments.” This witness, in her experience, is “privileged to witness” secrets that are “hidden from the view of outsiders or from historical scrutiny until much later after the collective graves have been discovered and the body counts made.” In my experience, my academic privilege to witness became a liability. To be in a field characterized by a general atmosphere of fear, where you might observe some people being randomly victimized more than others, is not the same as being individually vulnerable to being punished. The consciousness of my punishability made me not a witness in Scheper-Hughes’ sense, but the subject of discipline — an important category to add.

Reflecting on this sense of disciplining experienced by the research community, it is as if Giulio’s tortured body has become a punitive sign. The torture he suffered is neither the 18th century public spectacle of punishment nor 19th century legalized and concealed penalty described in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. His body and its pain, however, does speak to us of torture as both a spectacle and a sign of physical penalty. The unpunishability of the crime and its excesses function as a punishment that has continuing long lasting impact on the research community in and of Egypt. His killing continues to serve as an obstacle for other researchers to engage in empirically grounded social scientific scholarship in Egypt.

In Giulio’s last article in the leftist Italian newspaper, Il Manifesto, he recognized the Egyptian workers’ spontaneous initiatives like strikes to “break the wall of fear” and considered it as “a major spur for change.” Being aware of how Giulio’s killing functions as a punishment and how our punishability has become a restraint, I feel I owe it to Giulio not to focus on his wounds as they were described in such detail in the press, and to think instead of his and others’ daring to defy. On the first year anniversary of losing Giulio, I chose to remember him through Naguib Surur’s verses:

They said in the old days: (If you speak, do not be afraid, and if you are afraid, do not speak)..

But I say, fear is a pimp..so beware of fearing!

Say what you want to say to whomever, however, whenever..

Even if followed by the deluge say it straight in the face without dread:

“The king is naked” ..and who decrees a non-truth .

Let him meet me behind the mountain!

I am there waiting..

Disgrace to those who cannot see with their hearts or eyes,

And to hell with danger of all sorts!



Helena Nassif 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism