What happened to Patrick Zaki? The Egyptian student, researcher, and human rights activist was arrested in Cairo 2 years ago – but why? What did he do? And what will happen in the future? Let’s talk about it on today’s episode of Thinking in English!!

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Vocabulary List

To interrogate (v) –  To ask someone a lot of questions for a long time in order to get information, sometimes using threats or violence

The man was arrested and interrogated for five hours

To detain (v) – to force someone to officially stay in a place

A suspect has been detained by the police for questioning  

To drop (v) – to stop something you were doing or planning to do 

The union dropped its demands in return for a pay rise

To marginalise (v) – to treat someone or something as if they are not important

Some people are worried that the country’s native language will be marginalised  

Relentless (adj) – continuing in a severe or extreme way

The relentless heat makes it difficult to work during the day

Arbitrarily (adv) – in a way that uses personal power unfairly and without considering people’s rights and wishes

Local officials enforce rules arbitrarily and unreasonably

Plight (n) – an unpleasant condition, especially a serious, sad, or difficult one 

He was moved by the plight of the refugees

Honorary (adj) – given as a reward, without qualifying in a standard way

The university gave the president a honorary degree  

Torture (n) – the act of causing great physical or mental pain in order to persuade someone to do something or to give information

He revealed his secrets under torture

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In February 2020, before the world was turned upside down by COVID-19, Patrick George Zaki was arrested at Cairo Airport. The Egyptian postgraduate student was returning to his home country to visit his family for a few days. Instead, he was blindfolded, handcuffed, and interrogated at the airport for 17 hours before being taken to a secret National Security Agency building. 

During the interrogation, he was allegedly threatened, beaten, and tortured with electricity. Officials questioned him about his studies, research, and opinions on human rights. Eventually, he was charged by the police with ‘spreading fake news’ and ‘supporting unauthorised protests.’ From the 7th February 2020 until December 2021, Zaki was detained by the Egyptian government. Although currently released, the charges against Patrick have not been dropped and he will face trial over the next few months. 

File:Patrick Zaki.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Image of Patrick Zaki – Pic from Wikimedia

Today’s episode of Thinking in English is going to examine the case of Patrick Zaki in a little more detail. Who is Patrick Zaki? Why was he arrested by the Egyptian security services? What was the international reaction to the detainment? What will happen next? And what does the whole affair tell us about academic freedom in the Middle East? Let’s try to answer these questions over the next 10 minutes or so!

 And I also want to give a big thank you to my Instagram followers Paolo Federico Venzia and Maria Chiara Negretti for suggesting this topic! If you ever have a topic idea, message me on Instagram and I might record an episode on the topic!!

Who is Patrick Zaki?

Before his arrest and detention, Patrick George Zaki had been working, studying, and researching in the field of human rights and gender. He had been a researcher specialising in gender for a human rights organisation called the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and was doing a Master’s degree in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Bologna in Italy. 

Bologna University Students | Students hanging out in centro… | Flickr
University of Bologna – Image on Flickr

It was during a brief trip home from Italy to visit family that Zaki was arrested at Cairo airport. The programme Zaki was studying in Italy was part of what is known as a Erasmus Mundus Master’s degree – and is organised jointly by seven different leading Universities in Europe. The focus of the degree is in training “gender experts who will be able to contribute to gender equality and equity, taking into account… ethnicity, race, class, age and sexuality and contributing to rethink the idea of citizenship.” In a nutshell, it is a programme for students who want to work in human and gender rights!

Another relevant factor is Patrick Zaki’s religion. Zaki is Coptic Christian – a religious minority that makes up about 10-15% of the Egyptian population. Coptic Christians have been marginalised by the Egyptian government, targeted with hate crimes by extremists, and are generally unrepresented in modern Egyptian politics and society. 

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Why was Patrick Zaki arrested?

In July 2019, Zaki published an opinion article on the website Daraj titled “Displacement, Murder, and Narrowing: A Week’s Result in the Diaries of Egypt’s Copts.”  His article described his experiences as a Coptic Christian in Egypt, and expressed his personal view on current events and the treatment of religious minorities by the Egyptian government. 

Although religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution of Egypt, and President el-Sisi has urged civil society to ‘spread awareness of the human rights culture and… contribute to achieving the aspirations of the Egyptian people,’ the country has been known to punish people speaking out against the government. International human rights organisations have described the current Egyptian government’s policies “as a relentless crackdown on any form of dissent.”  Thousands of government critics, especially human rights workers and journalists, have been arbitrarily detained. 

As a human rights advocate, who had written about the plight of Egypt’s Coptic community, Zaki was viewed as an opponent or threat. The day after he was detained at the airport, the security services announced he was being investigated due to terrorism-related activities. Eventually, this charge was changed to “spreading false news inside and outside of the country.” Spreading fake news can result in 5 years in prison if found guilty. 

EIPR, the human rights organisation Zaki had worked for, has become a common target for government restrictions. Three of their staff were jailed in 2020 – with an international and high profile campaign involving celebrities like Scarlett Johansson helping secure their release. The founder of the group, Hossam Bahgat, was also fined in court in November last year for an “insulting” tweet. 

For almost two years, Zaki was detained by security forces in Egypt. According to numerous human rights organisations, Zaki was tortured and threatened by officials.  The accusations against him, ranging from “publishing rumours and false news” to “incitement to commit violence and terrorist crimes,” have little or no evidence. 

Patrick Zaki highlighted an issue sensitive for the government – the plight of Coptic Christians. He is also a human right advocate from a country that increasingly ignores human rights – especially the right to free speech. Whether or not his article was “spreading fake news,” his arrest seems to be based around his criticism of the government.

International Reaction to Patrick Zaki’s Arrest

File:Manifesto Patrick Zaki (cropped).jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Free Patrick Zaki – image from commons.wikimedia.org

Internationally, there has been a significant reaction to Mr Zaki’s imprisonment, especially from Italy. In December 2020, the European Parliament called for the release of Patrick George Zaki. Human rights organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Scholars at Risk have urged the Egyptian government to rethink their actions. And, as I mentioned earlier, the Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson was involved in campaigns for the release of Zaki. 

Patrick Zaki’s imprisonment has been a high profile news story in Italy. In fact, it was my Italian podcast listeners who recommended I look into this topic!! In 2016, an Italian PhD student at the University of Cambridge, Giulio Regeni, was murdered in Cairo – and the Patrick Zaki affair is bringing back the memories for Italian people. 

Italian cities including Bologna, Milan, and Naples have given Zaki honorary citizenship, and  Italian universities have written letters to the Egyptian government. In April 2021, the Italian Senate voted to give Zaki Italian citizenship – it was hoped that citizenship would allow the Italian government more influence over his trial. However, this has not yet been finalised by Foreign Minister. 

Despite this, the Italian government has also been criticised by Italian people for not doing enough to help Zaki. Italy has a strong financial and economic interest in Egypt – and it has been suggested that the government doesn’t want to harm relations with Egypt! 

What will Happen Next?

On 9 December 2021, the researcher was released from prison and finally returned to his family. International pressure succeeded in pushing Egypt to change its approach. However, Zaki is still not in the clear. 

He still faces charges of “harming national security,” “spreading false news” and “incitement to overthrow the state.” His trial has been postponed numerous times – as of now it is scheduled to begin in April 2022. Moreover, his case will be tried in a state security special court. This means that if he is found guilty he will be unable to appeal the decision. 

Academic Freedom in the Egypt

Is the situation of Patrick Zaki unusual? Or is it common in Egypt and the Middle East? Unfortunately, academic freedom, and many other freedoms, are restricted in most Middle Eastern countries. 

In fact, on the Academic Freedom Index, Egypt ranks in the lowest group. As I already mentioned, three of Zaki’s colleagues from the EIPR were also jailed in 2020, and the founder of the organisation was fined. Other researchers have also been arrested and imprisoned. For example, Ahmed Samir, a student at the Central European University in Vienna, and Kholoud Amer, a translator at the Library of Alexandria. Moreover, human rights groups in France are pushing for the release of Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I briefly mentioned the case of Guilio Regnei earlier, but I think it is important to go into a little more detail here. Regeni was a PhD student in the UK, and was found dead in Cairo in 2016. His body showed clear signs of torture and beatings – and the date he disappeared was close to the 5 year anniversary of the Egyptian uprising. Guilio had been researching Egyptian labour movements, and human rights groups suggest he was murdered due to his research.

Across the region, academic freedom is generally not respected. For researchers to be able to research, they need to be able to openly and freely discuss topics, including things governments may not like. However, this annoys and worries governments and regimes across the Middle East. 

Final Thought

On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I tried to introduce the story of Patrick Zaki. Although I’m not an expert, I think it seems relatively clear that he has been unfairly treated and targeted due to his criticism of the Egyptian government. I also think that it is likely he will return to prison in the future, unless international pressure makes the Egyptian government change their mind. 

What do you think? Do you think Zaki should be released and cleared? Is there academic freedom in your country?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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