North Africa, West Asia

Strikes, protests and Egyptian nights of curfew

A conversation about journalism and research in times of uprising and repression on the fourth anniversary of Egypt's Rabaa massacre.

Mona Abaza Giuseppe Acconcia
14 August 2017

August 2013 Rabaa massacre. Wikicommons/Mosa'ab Elshamy from 6th of October, Egypt. Some rights reserved.This is another interview in a series on the dilemmas and contradictions researchers encounter in undertaking research in the Middle East. The idea of interviewing social scientists on the processes of the production of knowledge has been inspired from Michael Burawoy’s concept of  ‘public sociology’, which he initiated and was followed by other sociologists who carried out further interviews with social scientists in ‘Global Dialogue’.

These interviews will attempt to focus on questions of methodology, equally, on the obstacles encountered by researchers when undertaking fieldwork in enduring political upheavals. It will also attempt to highlight the multiple and varied trajectories and voices which a younger generation of social scientists in the Middle East have been confronting.

Mona Abaza (MA): How did you get interested in Arabic culture? You had a number of other jobs before going into academia?

Giuseppe Acconcia (GA): I began travelling in the Middle East on long expeditions with my family when I was very young. Our first trip was to Syria in 1999 and I loved this country. Then I decided to write my Italian degree thesis on the reformist movement in Iran and I worked in the political section of the Italian Embassy in Teheran to that end. I really enjoyed studying Iranian civil society and often returned to that wonderful country after my graduation. All my first job experiences were informed by my interest for the Middle East. Since 2005, I decided to learn spoken Arabic after having studied standard Arabic at college. That same year, I began working for think tanks and NGOs focused on human rights and Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. In 2009, I finally decided to leave my job and move to Egypt. 

In Cairo, initially I worked as an Italian language teacher at the Italian School, at the Italian Cultural Institute (Zamalek) and at the American University. Later I began work as a journalist at the English-speaking newspaper, al-Ahram weekly. My editor in chief was the great Egyptian writer, Youssef Rakha (author of the “The Book of the Sultan's Seal”, 2016). When the events in Tahrir Square began to unfold I was still in Italy for the new year holidays. I landed in Cairo on the night of January 29, 2011 (four days after the first demonstrations), in the company of a friend working for the World Bank. They advised us to sleep in the airport. And we did. The next day, we thought the safest way to get to Downtown Cairo and join in was to take an ordinary taxi with some Egyptians.

Benjamin, my friend, mentioned that his house had just been attacked by unknown looters that very night. On our way back home, in Heliopolis, it was the first time I remember noticing something that was to become much clearer in the ensuing months - that is the way thugs had infiltrated Popular Committees. As the scholar Hatem Hassan defined them, these local Committees are “self-defence groups heterogeneous in their tactics, organisation, and efficacy”. In other words, this is the way in which ordinary citizens organise at the micro-level to respond to the absence of police and security personnel.  

On this occasion – they tried to stop the taxi on the grounds that we were foreigners, but our Egyptian fellow-travellers asked them to give us a break, and in the end they let us go. I was fascinated by this unique way of mobilizing a local neighborhood and later found that a similar mobilization was up and running in my vicinity too. I was living behind the Odeon Cinema, close to Talaat Harb Street. It was following the revolutionary dreams of so many comrades that I learned all I know about reporting in a context of widespread political mobilization.

MA: Your research in Egypt has been on social movements and the 2011 uprisings. How did you get interested in these topics?

GA: I guess that the real change in direction for my studies, together with my love for the region as a whole, was intimately related to the so-called "Arab Spring". It was following the revolutionary dreams of so many comrades that I learned all I know about reporting in a context of widespread political mobilization. I spent my time following the events of grassroots mobilization, witnessing the violence of the police battling against the aspirations of the younger generations. As a scholar I have often drawn upon my previous experiences in the 2011 protests to enhance my study of this interesting region in a context of potential political transformation. That of course was also where the trouble started…

That year, from February 2011 onwards until June 2016, I became a correspondent for the Italian left-wing newspaper il Manifesto, covering Tahrir Square events. Between 2011 and 2015 I also reported extensively for European mainstream and specialized media. I was arranging constant interviews and meetings with activists and experts, and I began to use this overall access to form some rather original insights into political developments in Egypt, gradually arriving at a better understanding of these events that I daily witnessed. I met great people, including journalists and bloggers such as Ahdaf Soueif, Wael Abbas, Hossam el-Hamalawi, Alaa Abdel Fattah, Mahiennour el-Masri while these incredible events were under way.

I decided to opt for a PhD after finishing my Masters in Middle Eastern Studies, in the politics department at SOAS. Looking on from abroad for a while as these events unfolded, I soon thought that I had to spend more time in Egypt. I had been reading Foucault, Gramsci, Beinin and Tripp, and I was convinced that among the most interesting outcomes of the 2011 events, there was the rise of a working-class-based social movement. Several opportunities to report back from events in Suez and Mahalla al-Kubra only confirmed for me the central relevance of the workers' movements in Egypt, despite puny coverage of the strikes by Italian mainstream media.   

It was especially difficult to meet up with activists in Suez for my focus groups (2014-2015). I remember that when I left the microbus that brought me from Cairo to the outskirts of the town, the driver looked at me with some suspicion and asked me where I was heading to. No sooner had I found a place to sleep downtown but I became aware that the local branch of the Amn el-Dawla was monitoring me closely. After having been informed about my presence by the hotel owner, scared by my foreign passport, they even paid visits to my room very early in the morning and again in the afternoon, asking incessant questions.

I tried to be obliging and to talk in Arabic as much as I could, but I was very afraid. Once I managed to link up with the strikers and various Revolutionary Socialists I wanted to meet, we repaired to a garden where they used to spend their “revolutionary nights” together.

Later that particular night we even visited army headquarters because the sister of one of them had an art show in the local theatre. I was surprised that, when there were no clashes, this area was regularly visited by ordinary citizens heading to the theatre or sports facilities. Military personnel never asked me or my activist friends for identity cards or other documents.

This for me was one of the most unforgettable nights in the aftermath of the revolution. I only ever experienced that same kind of atmosphere when, in that same year I had the chance to meet up with football Ultras in Port Said. So, we spent our evenings watching Bassem Youssef TV-programmes and everybody felt very happy. So, we spent our evenings watching Bassem Youssef TV-programmes and everybody felt very happy.

Back in Suez, close to the port, the police continued to ask me many questions and even briefly detained me. On that occasion, I remember, I felt I had to conceal my identity. I just told them that I was an Italian sailor, looking for a job.

MA: Tell me about more of your experiences, after the military coup.

GA: After the military coup in 2013, I was going daily to Rabaa al-Adaweya to cover Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins calling for the defence of the legitimacy of former president Mohammed Morsi. My reading of the August massacre, when the sit-in was “cleared” by security personnel, is that this will be remembered as one of the most ignominious attacks on human rights in Egyptian history. It was very hot and Ramadan. I often had iftar with the demonstrators, and I spent many hours in the Media Centre close to the Rabaa mosque. I was joined by many other Italian photographers and other colleagues.

The day of the assault on the sit-in, I was woken by a phone call from the Muslim Brotherhood politician, Jihad al-Haddad, who said that they knew the police were going to attack them. I joined Medinat Nassr at ten o clock. And I witnessed scenes of shocking devastation. I knew some of the people who were killed on this day. At that time I was living in Agouza and I remember that my flatmates were very afraid for me. They were strict respecters of the curfew, very aware of the minor thugs hanging around our house.

Meanwhile, I was deciding that it would have been really great to begin a general study of the patterns of mobilization and demobilization of the Egyptian oppositionists both before and after the Tahrir Square occupation, and in both urban and peripheral contexts. Ultimately I settled on a focus on the Popular Committees in the Cairo district of Sayeda Zeinab and the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) in Mahalla al-Kubra. They seemed to me from what I had witnessed to manifest the most interesting outcomes of the uprisings. And I did publish two ethnographic books of reportage and commentary on the Egyptian 2011 uprisings in Italian: La primavera egiziana (Infinito, 2012) and Egitto. Democraziamilitare (Exòrma, 2014). My reading of the August massacre... is that this will be remembered as one of the most ignominious attacks on human rights in Egyptian history.

MA: In what ways did this path you took become a struggle?

GA: As a journalist and a scholar, I have had to manage very complicated situations in very different contexts, both in Egypt and Northern Syria. For example, it is true that in times of political repression, it is difficult to do research in Egypt. But it was also very complicated to work there as a journalist, especially during the 2011 uprisings.

On the morning of February 2, 2011, for example, together with other Italians, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of baltagyys (thugs) in Shubra on our way home to Westel Balad. They were carrying chains and swords. Later they delivered us to the Mukabarat. When it was time to let us go they questioned me particularly keenly about my Iranian visas. I remember that a Canadian intervened on my behalf asking for the release of all of us. In this case, the security personnel only briefly detained us, bringing us back to downtown Cairo the same evening, leaving us along the Corniche of the Zamalek district, where intense clashes between demonstrators and the police were still taking place.

On another occasion, in June 2015 in Northern Syria, I was arrested together with other Italian and French journalists, going back to Turkey after conducting fieldwork research with YPG-YPJ fighters. In the end we were expelled by the Turkish authorities. It is one of their priorities to prevent the coverage of what is going on in Rojava and the Kurdish areas of Turkey. After the 2013 military coup in Egypt, I became aware that my fieldwork research could cause major problems for my Egyptian activist friends and interviewees.

After the 2013 military coup in Egypt, I became aware that my fieldwork research could cause major problems for my Egyptian activist friends and interviewees. This was especially true in relation to some very sensitive issues that I was tackling over the last six years, in my studies of Egyptian leftists and the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) in Mahalla al-Kubra. The attitudes of the unionised workers locally towards my research changed rather markedly after the 2014 political repression. Even experienced trade unionists began to be concerned about the long arm of the Egyptian authorities and infiltration by the Security Services (Mukabarat). This was especially evident after the so called Tamarrod (rebel) campaign – the petition signed by different strands of the opposition that demanded that Mohammed Morsi should step down. This mobilization paved the way for the June 30, 2013 Cairo protests and the arrest of the first ever elected Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi. This was a point of rapid deterioration. It was exactly at that time that the forces of reaction gained the upper hand and were particularly dangerous to any researcher or journalist working in the country.

Later the military junta set about sealing the success of their military coup by trying to co-opt some leftist figures (for example, Kamal Abu-Eita) into the interim government and thereby demobilize the working class. I remember one day, while my brother was visiting me, we were coming back home from Mahalla to Cairo by microbus, and discussing the day with the activists. In the course of this I referred to Shaimaa el-Sabbagh by name. She was an Egyptian activist and poet killed close to Talaat Harb Square by the police on January 25, 2015. On arrival in Cairo, the driver told a policeman that we were talking politics and he duly set off after us. Luckily, we had just enough time to grasp the first available taxi out of there. On arrival in Cairo, the driver told a policeman that we were talking politics.

MA: What problems do you see for foreigners generally hoping to do research in Egypt?

GA: In general, in the last six years, foreigners in Egypt have felt a growing atmosphere of mistrust. The 2011 uprisings were portrayed by the mainstream media as a foreign-led conspiracy. This, despite the fact that in 2011 at least, many Middle Eastern activists appeared to have very poor connections with anti-regime movements in other countries.

On the one hand, it is true that one of first accounts to highlight the presence of the Egyptian uprisings was Gene Sharp's books on Tahrir Square. His ideas of non-violent resistance were widely publicized in 2011, alongside the latest generation of cyber-activism techniques disseminated by Wael Ghonim, and those other tactics of non-violence allegedly studied by Egyptian political activists in workshops on the mobilization against the Milosevic regime in the former Yugoslavia. On the other hand, one of the main targets of the Egyptian military junta has been to prevent the formation of any kind of transnational solidarity among activists, especially if they are socialists or communists. This has been done in different ways: depicting all foreigners as potential spies; generating a chauvinistic sense of xenophobia; stigmatizing both youth and labour protests as fundamentally against the national interests.

The public media has depicted all foreigners as possible spies listening out for the private political sentiments of ordinary Egyptians in the local cafes. Especially since 2013 it has been increasingly difficult to work as a journalist and a researcher without being harassed or threatened with the police. Many of my colleagues have been expelled from Cairo airport or advised to leave the country. Put simply, the disappearance must be publicly reported as soon as it is discovered.

MA: What can researchers do about these dangers?

GA: I know that after the torture and murder of Giulio Regeni, there is a better understanding of the dangers that foreign journalists and scholars might face in Egypt. This is a first step: to be aware of the possibility of being targeted and misrepresented by the security forces and confronted by a range of threats. It is clear now that in the case of an arrest, a standard reaction should be to provide an immediate response from the close circle of people who first become aware of the disappearance of a researcher and also from national and local diplomatic authorities. Put simply, the disappearance must be publicly reported as soon as it is discovered.

A quick reaction increases the possibility of a positive conclusion to events. Now and in more general terms, Scholars at Risk is tackling the need to protect scholars involved in fieldwork research in countries where they might encounter major threats during their work. This might help in the future to avoid any underestimation of the risks that scholars can be faced with during their research, especially in authoritarian regimes.

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