History repeats itself if you do not know how to draw lessons from it. Giulio Regeni was an Italian PhD student at the University of Cambridge who was kidnapped on 25 January 2016 in Cairo, on the 5th anniversary of Tahrir Square uprising. His tortured, mutilated and half-naked corpse was found in the Cairo-Alexandria highway, on February 3rd, close to an Egyptian secret service prison.
Patrick George Zaky, an Egyptian student of human rights and gender studies at the University of Bologna, returned to Egypt on 7 February 2020 for a short holiday visiting his family, but he never arrived home. He was arrested upon arrival from Italy at Cairo’s international airport on February 7. He was held incommunicado for 24 hours before appearing to a Public Prosecution office in Mansoura, his hometown on February 8. According to his lawyer and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) – the association with whom Zaky collaborated as a human rights researcher – he was beaten, tortured, subjected to electric shocks, and interrogated on various issues related to his activism. The prosecutors have presented a heavy list of charges: “publishing rumors and false news that aim to disturb social peace and sow chaos; incitement to protest without permission from the relevant authorities with the aim of undermining state authority; calling for the overthrow of the state; managing a social media account that aims to undermine the social order and public safety; incitement to commit violence and terrorist crimes,” extending his custody to 15 more days.
Like Giulio Regeni, he had fallen in the lists of the National Security Investigations for his research and activism. Patrick Zaky, in fact, is not only a student but he is also an activist who fights for human and gender rights. As a human rights activist, Patrick is interested in the rights of the Copts (the largest Christian minority in Egypt), the rights of LGBT, women and freedom of expression. He has also supported the campaign for truth and justice for Giulio Regeni. In one of his interviews, he claimed that “we fight for our rights, but also for Giulio Regeni.” The similarity between his case and Giulio Regeni’s is not a mere coincidence, but part of a systematic pattern of intimidation and repression targeting human rights defenders in Egypt. According to the EIPR “since October 2019, six EIPR staff members have been temporarily detained and questioned, including for a period of two days in one case, as part of arbitrary and entirely illegal stop and search operations that apparently target individuals perceived to be politically active in any way.”
All the developments in the political, social and religious fields in Egypt, as the most populous country in the Arab world, affect fundamentally other Arab peoples as well as the Middle East and North Africa. For this reason, Egypt became the most important pillar for the Arab Spring which started in Tunisia in December 2010. In this region, in fact, democracy had been suspended and basic human rights and fundamental requirements for the rule of law had been long violated under the government of autocratic leaders. The hopes for democracy and change in Egypt have been frustrated since 2013 when a military coup led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew the democratically elected government and replaced it with a brutally authoritarian regime. Since then, the Al-Sisi regime has used a combination of capillary surveillance, repression, violence and widespread disappearances, arbitrary detentions, arrests, prosecutions and threats to the right to life to break and silence the resistance of opposition movements. In 2019, a big uprising has started in Egypt against President Sisi, who has been on the agenda due to allegations of corruption fueling his authoritarian rule. Organized from their social media accounts, the Egyptian people marched towards the Presidential Building requesting Al-Sisi to step down.
Patrick Zaky is not the first Egyptian citizen who studies abroad and who is detained by Egyptian authorities. Walid al-Shobaky, a PhD student at the University of Washington was detained on 24 May 2018 because of his academic research. He was conducting research on his country’s judicial system. Later, like Patrick Zaky, he was also accused of being a member of a terrorist group and spreading false news. These ongoing prosecutions, imprisonments and violence against activists, students, scholars and researchers call into question the country’s democracy.
According to data collected by SAR’s (Scholars at Risk) Academic Freedom Monitoring Project and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression in Egypt (AFTE), between October 2014 and March 2019 the attacks and pressures on higher education in Egypt has been increased by the adoption of “several pieces of legislation or executive decrees which threatened to erode university autonomy, both by giving political actors outside campus some control over university governance, and, more severely, by placing military authorities in charge of policing on-campus activities, and adjudicating alleged crimes on campus.” In addition to these legal pressures on university campuses, there are also ongoing arrests, violence (including killings), restrictions on travel. According to SAR and AFTE reports, Egyptian authorities make provision for preventing scholars from entering Egypt to give lectures and attend conferences. Since 2014, higher education in Egypt, including scholars, students and academics, have been threatened by the amendment of the Law Regulating Universities and the adoption of other decrees which place universities, among other public institutions and facilities, under military control.
It is necessary to take immediate action for Patrick Zaky in order to prevent another case like that of Giulio Regeni. In this regard, the University of Bologna where Zaky studies and the associations and networks like SAR who dedicate themselves to protect human rights defenders have manifested their support and issued reports in favor of human rights activists and scholars. But in the present circumstances, this may not be enough.
Egypt has to immediately ensure full respect of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the right to freedom of expression. Academics, scholars, activists and researchers, who want peace, don’t belong in prison, but in the university and in their research center!
Cover photo: Giulio Regeni hugs Patrick George Zaky in the name of freedom (حرية): “this time it’ll be ok”, graffiti by street artist Laika in front of the Embassy of Egypt in Rome, Villa Ada.