Commentary. By refusing to cooperate with Italian investigators and hiding behind a veil of secrecy, the British university is stoking conspiracy theories and could cause research funds to shift away from politically sensitive issues.

A hostile silence from the University of Cambridge

There’s probably a good dose of arrogance in the caution of the University of Cambridge lawyers’ advice to Maha Abdelrahman, the professor who supervised Giulio Regeni and who refused to answer questions from Italian investigators. Her refusal has unfortunately, although quite predictably, rekindled the controversial hypothesis that Regeni was a pawn in the hands of others. In spite of the “petition for the truth” from his mother, Paola Regeni, who only a few days before urged the solemn halls of prestigious British universities to cooperate, some stereotypes about the superficiality of Italy have perhaps prevailed on the faculty’s decision not to trust them.

Yet the Italian institutions cannot be accused of having given to bombastic rhetoric. Rome tried to press Cairo, refusing the multiple versions Egypt presented to the world. And while Rome was withdrawing its ambassador, Paris, London and Berlin were seeking new business agreements with Egypt.

But it’s no doubt that the British university’s doubts, trenched behind regulations aimed at protecting academic freedom, are engendered by the aggressive mediatic cacophony, which, from the beginning of Regeni’s unfortunate event, navigated at 1,000-knot speed away from the obvious. A good part of the media was subject to a tailspin, which, by distracting the attention from a politically expensive investigation, was tied around the protocols of academic research, deliberately ignoring the praxis: We have seen illustrious afternoon commentators comparing the investigation and scientific validation methods to spy techniques and the two women supervising Regeni being labeled as “bad teachers.”

The search for Regeni itself was reduced to an action “on behalf of” — robbing him of the passionate subjectivity that would have been expressed by his search. Following the smoke and mirrors of conspiracies and espionage in which the unaware Regeni might have been stuck — theorems which, months after the events, are confirmed as speculative searches for ulterior motives lacking not only evidence, but even any clues — we ended up pushing more and more the most plausible hypothesis aside.

The most plausible hypothesis is that Regeni, who disappeared on the fourth anniversary of the revolution against Mubarak, on Jan. 25 (a day in which police operations were more intense than usual) was caught in a trap set by a regime that systematically practices torture as an instrument aimed at controlling society. In 2015 there were 1,411 cases of enforced disappearances and 625 acknowledged cases of torture. The el-Sisi government is torn by the conspiracy paranoia typical of unstable dictatorships — a regime politically accredited by the Italian government.

It’s a scenario which, evidently, is too realistic to be taken seriously by the imaginative creators of daring 007s and international conspiracies. Certainly there are still many cards lacking to create the puzzle that might, at least, bring some truth about Regeni’s tortured body back to his loved ones and to the many among us who rallied for them.

Nonetheless, all the tangible elements that appeared since Feb. 3, when Regeni’s body was found, lead exclusively to the dark rooms of Egyptian power and to blood feuds between rivaling intelligence agencies. Those studying the structure of power in Arab countries know that, often, institutions — especially military ones or the secret services — constitute an internal protectorate, authoritarian enclaves exclusively owned by people in power, often fighting among themselves. It’s plausible, therefore, that, in a post-revolutionary context, these competitive dynamics appear as being exacerbated, and the repetitive changes in the regime become almost physiological.

On the other hand, the various truths officially supplied to us by Egypt betray an embarrassing and clumsy attempt to cover up the internal power struggles. The use of disappearances, the system of widespread torture and the authoritarian tailspin lead to the suspicion that Regeni’s body was sacrificed on the altar of an escalation of vanities, ambitions and points of no return permeating the rivalries among the various intelligence agencies.

Being able to carry out academic research, as Regeni was doing, is a fundamental condition in order to get to know these mechanisms. While underlining how the obsession of giving value to espionage theories, added to criminalizing the University of Cambridge, might have played into the regime’s hands. So far, we haven’t signed the petitions supporting our colleagues, seeing in these a corporate reflex, but we have invited them to explain the how and why of doing research and produce socially shared knowledge on more sensible issues. The silence that met these invitations, including in the university halls, strengthens the worst arguments set out by those who want to inhibit it, and it sounds like a badly hidden arrogance.

The universities surely should better protect their own researchers, beside defusing the trap in which Regeni’s death gives arguments to the mediatic pillory against field research and its methods. Instead, what we see is a defensive stance: more silence, more hierarchy, more authorizations, the deviation of funds to politically “harmless” projects without empirical acknowledgment, a greater space to risk calculated by private insurers.

The best way through which academic institutions will be able to protect their own researchers is, instead, to give voice to the risks and to the pressures that might be run into, to make practices in authoritarian and corrupt political systems transparent. Asked about its research methods, the University of Cambridge should clarify, thanks to the authority with which it is invested, the fact that no university imposes its own doctoral candidates questions, research themes and methods of investigation.

Regeni is the only laudable person responsible for having chosen what to study in his doctoral thesis. The risk is that, in the precautionary heat of their own affiliates and of its own institutional image, the universities sacrifice research on political change, on protest and uncertainty — giving our knowledge to the think-thanks, to the consulting companies, to the intelligence reports, to the news reports (where these still survive). And this is also why the silence from Abdelrahman and the University of Cambridge sounds even more improper and hostile.

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