The Perils of Research: Reflections on Giulio Regeni’s Story
It could have been me.
These are the words that come to my mind, every time I think back to the years I spent in Egypt. Along with the excellent memories as a student, the wonderful moments spent traveling, meeting new people and confronting myself with a completely different reality from the one I was used to back at home, nowadays I cannot but recount everything in the light of that infamous January 25, 2016; the day Giulio Regeni went missing.
In 2011, I witnessed the revolution of Tahrir Square. I remember the screams, the tear gas, the moving crowd, the buildings on fire. I decided to stay in Cairo to follow the events, even though as an Italian citizen I could have benefited from a repatriation flight. I did not do so for testing my courage, nor out of voyeurism. I stayed because I was genuinely curious and impressed. Curious to see with my own eyes an historical event. Impressed by the political turn that was taking shape in an unexpected and extremely violent way. I was not a journalist nor someone involved in the protests. At the time I was only a Master’s student in Human Rights, willing to learn more from the field, determined to bring my own contribution.
I lived in Egypt from 2010 to 2014. Four intense years. Revolutions, counter-revolutions, passionate dialogues with friends and colleagues inside and outside the University, the discovery of a country made of thousands of contradictions (but which country isn’t contradictory, after all?), and of my first steps as a researcher.
I started working almost immediately after my Master. Consultancies, field-work, academic research. Offering on spare time a hand to NGOs working on human rights issues.
So, it could have been me.
The point is, I do not want this story to be about me. I want it to be about Giulio, and about all those researchers who are innocent victims of their good faith. Usually, young people who are crushed by gears and mechanisms way stronger than them.
And yet, we can only experience and live our own story.
And so, my story continues. After the 2011 Arab Spring, I spent a summer in Cameroon with another NGO, this time working on arbitrary detention, fair trials and judicial reform. I participated in a UNHCR project on refugees in Yaoundé. The Regeni case was distant, somewhere in the future. I was still an idealistic and perhaps naïve young researcher.
So, it could have been me.
Even in Paris, years later. When I started to work on counter-terrorism and on the Syrian civil war, the Bataclan attacks had just happened. It was tough to carry out field work on jihadists’ trials, being ‘only’ a doctoral student. When you touch a country’s most delicate issue you are always a bit suspicious for the authorities, in one way or the other.
Let me be clear. I am not claiming to be the only one who ever carried out field research under difficult conditions. I know many people (journalists, activists, friends) who have gone through much worse, so to speak. Nor that mine is an extraordinary story. It’s just a story.
But like Regeni’s broken one, it could have turned out to be an extremely fragile one as well.
And like Giulio, there are hundreds of other, more experienced researchers who constantly run the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fariba Adelkhah is an example we know too well in Sciences Po.
So, what’s the moral of my story?
Now is the part where I should move on to recommendations for our young students, telling them to be careful. Not to embark on perilous quests, or at least to be vigilant.
All this sounds very much like patronizing.
The reality is, you’ll never know what can happen. Also, you need to discover it for yourself. There might be a real danger in doing field research, but there might be dangers also in crossing the road to get to your local bakery.
If someone had told me I was taking risks in my early twenties, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference. I wanted to study in Egypt and I wanted to live there.
Will I ever go back?
I cannot be sure. I haven’t, so far.
The January 25, 2016 was the anniversary of the revolution I had witnessed five years earlier. That night Giulio Regeni, a young, committed researcher from Cambridge University, went missing in Cairo. He was to be found dead, cruelly tortured, a few days later.
The brutality of power can strike in different ways, at different latitudes. This should not discourage young, committed students to put power in question.
But what should make us think here, is that Giulio was just conducting university research.
His mantra, as ours, was to advance knowledge. And yet, to quote the most classical of Foucault’s maxims, knowledge is power.
I think we can take that as a reminder to always praise free researchers, when they help advancing some form of evidence, of information, of data.
Their quest is our quest.
Unless we are already addicted to a world where ‘ignorance is strength, war is peace, and freedom is slavery’, of course.