Regeni and Zaky: field researchers at the forefront risking their lives

Marco Monticelli
Published on February 15, 2020

Saturday, January 25th, marked the fourth anniversary of the death of Ph.D. student Giulio Regeni. For the past four years, no clear facts have emerged surrounding the events of his abduction and death. However, this has not stopped people from all over Italy, and the world, from gathering together in the streets to light candles in remembrance of him and to demand the truth surrounding his death. These memorials, supported and organized by Amnesty International, saw young and elderly people demonstrating for human rights across many Italian cities. In Ancona, for example, the meeting took place in Piazza Roma at 19:41, which was the exact time of the announcement of Giulio’s disappearance. Everyone in the square held a light in his memory.

Giulio Regeni was a respected researcher at the University of Cambridge. In January 2016, just before his death, he had been studying Egyptian labor unions in Cairo when he disappeared. One week after his disappearance, his body was found mutilated, presumably from being tortured, with multiple fractures and stab wounds. The Egyptian authorities initially claimed the injuries were the result of a car accident. Later, this story was altered to place the blame for Giulio’s death on a small terrorist group, based on the outskirts of Cairo, who were allegedly disguised as police officers when they kidnapped Regeni. This group was said to be composed of four-man who had been arrested and killed by police just before the Egyptian government publicly declared that Regeni’s personal belongings had been found. However, sources outside the police department, such as Amnesty International and The Guardian, citing contradictory evidence and the discrepancies surrounding the conflicting stories pushed by the Egyptian police, made it clear that the police were directly involved in Regeni’s death.

Despite continuing investigations, no widely accepted version of the facts has emerged. As a result, the Italian Deputies Chamber launched its own commission of inquiry in April 2019 focusing on the events surrounding Regeni’s death, which is to be concluded within 12 months of its start date. This commission has been approved by all political groups in Italy except for Forza Italia, which abstained from the vote. There is still no clear understanding of what happened to Giulio Regeni, but we will continue to demand the truth.

It is nevertheless astonishing that Regeni’s story is not an isolated case. Last week on the night of February 6th, an Egyptian-born graduate student, Patrick Zaky, was arrested at Cairo’s airport. He currently remains in police custody and has been subjected to torture. Zaky is attending the master’s program in gender and human rights studies at the University of Bologna. His lawyer, Mohamad Lofty, has stated that the parallels between Zaky’s case and the case of Giulio Regeni indicate that Egyptian intelligence and their national investigative services have been involved in both incidents.

In this scenario, not only would the already precarious diplomatic relationship between Italy and Egypt worsen tremendously, but it also highlights the inherent risk to researchers who investigate sensitive topics in more authoritarian countries. Regeni had been conducting his research on the independent trade union of street vendors. The Egyptian government has tried for many years to control these unions by increasing regulations and attempting to limit their activities. Many see the unions’ unprecedented campaign of strikes, beginning in 2006, as one of the initial catalysts of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011. After the uprising, the number of trade unions throughout the country multiplied exponentially.

The exact relationship between the Egyptian government and the trade unions is very complex and ambiguous. While the Egyptian authorities may view these organizations with unease, oftentimes street vendors will be hired as police informants, as mentioned in The Guardian’s article. In fact, it was a leader of one of these trade unions who denounced Regeni to the police after becoming suspicious of his line of questioning and the research he was conducting.

Politically sensitive topics such as these represent thriving fields of research for university programs, many of which students are encouraged to explore for the institution’s own prestige. Students all over the world willing to investigate these dynamics end up being used as pawns for these research institutions. Traditionally, the role of academia has been of the utmost importance in contributing to the production of knowledge surrounding such sensitive issues, which otherwise may not come to light and become of public interest. It is because of this important legacy of grappling with delicate topics that greater measures to ensure the safety of these students needs to be reinforced. On 16 January 2018, Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the Cambridge University announced to the academic community: “It is not uncommon for academic research in the humanities and social sciences to impinge on politically sensitive issues. Giulio was an experienced researcher, who had already spent time in Egypt, and was a fluent Arabic speaker. He was using standard academic methods to study trade unions in Egypt.” Being an experienced researcher and a fluent speaker of the local language though did not ensure Giulio’s safety or protect his life.

Similarly, the Alma Mater Administrative Board of the University of Bologna, where Zaky attends his master’s program, expressed their own serious concerns surrounding Zaky’s incarceration and claim to be monitoring the situation on high alert. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in collaboration with the university, has created a crisis unit and is investigating Zaky’s situation as well. However, the question that arises is: is this enough? As Daniel Fuchs points out in his paper ‘Labour research under coercive authoritarianism: comparative reflections on fieldwork challenges in China’, “The assassination of Giulio Regeni in Egypt in 2016 tragically highlights the urgency and importance of further intensifying academic exchange and debate on fieldwork strategies and safety.” Measures to protect students doing field research have to be preemptive, and simply declaring a state of alert about these major concerns after the fact certainly does not go far enough.

The authors of this article, being two academic researchers who have done, or are doing, fieldwork in countries characterized by similar concerns, risks, and dynamics, are not intending to wholly blame academic institutions for these tragedies and abuses of power. It is our hope that this article will help emphasize the real need for support that field researchers require today. Our work is necessary and noble, but our safety is not rightfully provided for. We appeal to universities all over the world to undertake the development of strategies to guarantee the safety of their students in the field, who are the most essential resource in terms of cultural exchange and analysis, and who risk their own lives every day in the pursuit of knowledge, justice, and truth.


Agenzia Giornalistica Italia, Agi, “L’avvocato dei Regeni: ‘Gli aguzzini di Zaky sono gli stessi d Giulio”, 10 February 2020, Access Data:

Amnesty International, Campaign “Verità per Giulio Regeni”, Access Data:

Biografia e Storia di Giulio Regeni, Cultura, Canale del Sito, Access Data:

Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights – EIPR, “An Egyptian Human Rights defender disappeared and tortured: EIPR Gender & Rights Researcher Patrick Zaki, arrested at Cairo airport, tortured and sent to Prosecutors after 24 hours of incommunicado detention. Prosecution ordered his detention for 15 days”, Access Data:

Fuchs, Daniel “Labour research under coercive authoritarianism: Comparative reflections on fieldwork challenges in China” 2019.

Michaelson, Ruth and Lorenzo Tondo, “Italy alarmed after Egyptian studying in Bologna arrested in Cairo”, 9 February 2020, The Guardian, Access Data:

Stille, Alexander, “Who murdered Giulio Regeni”, 4 October 2016, The Guardian, Access Data:

Statements from the University of Cambridge about the death of Giulio Regeni, 16 January 2018 Access Data:

Walsh, Declan, “Why was an Italian graduate student tortured and murdered in Egypt?”, 15 August 2017, The New York Times Magazine, Access Data:

Cowritten by Marco Monticelli, Alessandra Monticelli
Reviewed by Zac Morgan
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