April 2019

In the Crosshairs of an Academic Crackdown

Even when her colleagues at the American University in Cairo were getting arrested and sentenced to death, sociologist Amy Austin Holmes thought she had kept herself safely under the radar. She was wrong.

Holmes with members of the Syrian Democratic Forces

By Michelle Nicholasen

It was a straightforward proposal and seemingly benign research topic. In 2016, as a newly tenured professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Amy Austin Holmes was thrilled to receive a grant to analyze the impact of the new, restrictive NGO law on civil society across Egypt—whose government had become increasingly autocratic under the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. At the time, she had no reason to believe her work was being tracked by state intelligence.

Each of her five associates would study a different group or region of the country, with her own focus being the Nubians in the southern part of the country. She was drawn to the culture and history of the Nubians of Upper Egypt because they reminded her of the Kurds, another group that was central to her scholarship.

Descendants from an ancient civilization in the Sudan, Nubians have lived in the border area between Egypt and Sudan for thousands of years. Dam construction along the Nile forced their relocation several times in the twentieth century. Holmes knew that as an African ethnic group, the Nubians had been “Arabized” or forced to relinquish their language and indigenous identity, like some of the Kurdish groups she had studied.

Two major political developments affecting the Nubians had occurred in recent years, and she wanted to study the impact these changes had on the community.

In 2013—after a military coup removed the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi, and appointed an interim president—a new version of the constitution included an article promising Nubians the right to return to some of their traditional homeland in Egypt within ten years. It was a surprising and unprecedented gesture that hinted at a possible new period of liberalization.

And in 2016, under the presidency of military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a new law was drafted forbidding NGOs to accept foreign support, a move that would hamper civil organizations—including those that served the Nubians.

By the time Holmes embarked on her Nubian research, the climate was already fraught, since a protest law had been put into place even before the NGO law. “They made it illegal to protest…and all of these horrible things started happening. Disappearances, and the mass death sentences,” she says.... Read more about In the Crosshairs of an Academic Crackdown