Doctoral student held by Egypt pleads for help from universities

Waleed Salem has been unable to leave home country after being jailed during research

May 20, 2021
Egyptian security forces stand guard outside the Saudi embassy as a metaphor that a University of Washington doctoral student is being detained in Egypt.
Source: Getty

A University of Washington doctoral student detained in Egypt since 2018 while researching its authoritarian government is pleading for help amid the blurring lines of safety for academics abroad.

The student, Waleed Salem, was jailed for several months in 2018 while studying the behaviour of the judiciary system in his home country for his dissertation in political science at the University of Washington.

Mr Salem has been waiting since then for permission to fly out, one of at least three Egyptian researchers studying at overseas institutions being held by the government that took power in a 2013 military coup.

He is the only one of the three affiliated with a US institution, and the only one not still in jail. The others are Ahmed Samir Santawy, from the Central European University, and Patrick Zaky, from the University of Bologna.

Mr Salem concedes that he took risks in returning to Egypt after the military takeover, and just a year after University of Cambridge doctoral student Giulio Regeni, who travelled to Egypt to study its labour unions, died in government custody.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Salem admitted to having been overly confident that the political situation had eased, and that his affiliations with a top US university and a leading Egyptian campus would help to protect him.

“I thought I had all my paperwork right, as it were,” Mr Salem said. “Which I think was quite naive at that point.”

Mr Salem said he arrived home in Egypt in September 2017 and quickly arranged a visiting scholar relationship with the American University in Cairo (AUC).

He then went about interviewing people familiar with the workings of the Egyptian judiciary in the Arab Spring period when Hosni Mubarak was ousted as president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi was elected to replace him, and the military led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi then seized power.

That work got Mr Salem arrested in May 2018, shortly before he planned to return to Seattle. He was released that December after a campaign led by his family and his University of Washington colleagues.

Mr Salem has been blocked, however, from leaving the country. Unable to finish his PhD and prevented from seeing his daughter for years, he has turned the bulk of his frustration to AUC, saying it could be doing more to help him get out.

He also had some criticism for the University of Washington, suggesting that it could be doing more to convince AUC to be more aggressive.

“I don’t think UW could have influence with the Egyptian government,” Mr Salem said. “But it could have been clearer with AUC, to impress on them the necessity of the AUC saying to the authorities: ‘We know this guy; he is just an academic researcher. Let him go.’”

AUC said it was “a strong supporter of academic freedom” and expressed its hope that Mr Salem “is able to return to his university to resume his studies as soon as possible”.

At the University of Washington, the vice-provost for global affairs, Jeffrey Riedinger, said the president, Ana Mari Cauce, had spoken with her AUC counterpart, Francis Ricciardone, and was told that Mr Salem “had no direct association with AUC”.

Professor Riedinger said that, in hindsight, “It’s much easier to say, ‘Maybe somebody should have been a little more attuned to what the risks were.’”

A visiting scholar designation, Professor Riedinger continued, was largely a courtesy appointment that does not generally determine “how much obligation the host university feels to intervene on a scholar’s behalf”.

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