Walid Salem's family and professors at UW worked a quiet campaign for his release. His court case is ongoing.

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A University of Washington doctoral student imprisoned for months in Egypt on suspicion of spreading false news and belonging to a terrorist group was released last week from prison.

Walid Salem, who was researching Egypt’s judicial system, disappeared in May after meeting a Cairo-based law professor. Family and friends learned days after his disappearance that Salem had been apprehended by police and jailed.

Now, he is now living at home with family in Egypt.

“Mentally, psychologically, he feels free. But, that’s relative to where he was a few weeks ago,” said Michael McCann, a University of Washington professor, who spoke recently with Salem.

Graduate students and professors, who for months feared for Salem’s safety and quietly advocated for his release, were relieved by the news. What the future holds for Salem, though, is uncertain, and his detention highlights broader concerns for academics abroad as countries like Egypt increasingly limit freedom of expression and research.

Research of Egyptian courts

Salem traveled to Egypt, his homeland, to research for his Ph.D. dissertation about Egyptian courts’ relationship with the country’s executive branch, and when and why the judiciary sometimes challenges the regime.

His professors were supportive.

“He’s an Egyptian national. He was going to a place he was very familiar with. He could do his research and still be near his family,” said Joel Migdal, another UW professor. “I don’t think we foresaw at all what has happened.”

As Egypt’s politics have transformed in the wake of the Arab Spring and regime changes, the country’s leadership, under president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, has increasingly clamped down on opposition voices and suppressed free expression, some analysts say. That’s limited the freedom of researchers to ask questions about how the government works.

“The crackdown on academic freedom occurs amid a crackdown on dissent and independent thought in general,” said Mai El-Sadany, the legal and judicial director at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The crackdown started to escalate in 2013 and escalated even more in recent months with this presidential election.”

El-Sadany said observers have noticed that charges like spreading false news or of belonging to an illegal organization have risen in recent years, and Egyptian authorities are using them to detain human-rights lawyers, social-media bloggers and academics like Salem.

In his research, Salem interviewed judges and lawyers from a variety of viewpoints, including some who have been critical of Egypt’s regime, McCann said.

He suspects that’s why Salem was arrested last May, but said the doctoral student’s research of the Egyptian government was aimed “not to criticize or change it, but to see how it works.”

Egyptian prosecutors never formally charged Salem, but he remained in prison as the court renewed 15-day detention periods, McCann said.

A quiet campaign

Days after Salem was detained, McCann and Migdal, the co-chairs of Salem’s Ph.D. committee, formed a strategy, along with Salem’s family, to try to spur his release.

“Our first principle was do no harm and do everything we can to work through the system to convince the Egyptian officials Walid was not a threat, he was not a danger, he was a legitimate scholar and they were not acting in their own interest,” McCann said.

They worried a public campaign could put him in danger. “Regimes become annoyed,” McCann said. So, they worked quietly.

They persuaded UW to draft two letters from President Ana Mari Cauce on Salem’s behalf: One confirming he was a student and another that provided details of his research and its legitimacy.

The UW Office of Global Affairs also contacted the U.S. Department of State and its Cairo embassy about Salem, according to UW spokesman Victor Balta. The State Department gave helpful advice, according to Balta, but was limited in action because Salem is not a U.S. citizen.

Meanwhile, McCann and Migdal collected letters from academic associations in support of Salem, and wrote to U.S. officials and politicians as well as international academics who might have influence in Egypt.

“A lot of it was expending time as therapy with nervous energy,” McCann said. Throughout, the two professors were petrified that Salem would be hurt or even killed.

Salem’s peers helped, too. Riddhi Mehta-Neugebauer, a doctoral student in political science, said she felt numb and helpless when she learned that her friend, who she knew as a contemplative soul who loved independent cinema and sharing meals at Chili’s South Indian restaurant in the University District, had been jailed.

Mehta-Neugebauer and other graduate students wrote messages of solidarity to Salem.

“We’re going to figure out ways we can continue to support him when he comes back,” she said.

Pending case

When Migdal first saw Salem on his screen, he felt “a tremendous sense of tension going out of my body,” he said.

“It’s been every day on my heart,” Migdal said.

It’s unclear if the professors’ efforts helped.

“Everything we tried, I have no idea if it had positive impact or just kept us busy because we were concerned,” McCann said.

Both spoke to Salem recently in video chats. Salem did not respond to a request for interview from The Seattle Times.

“He seemed to be mentally healthy, although he was obviously very reflective. But, that would happen after six months of being secluded,” McCann said. Physically, Salem appeared “a little thin and tired,” but healthy, despite a cold.

Migdal said Salem told him that he was not harmed or threatened while in the Tora prison, near Cairo.

In prison, Salem cooked, read newspapers and books, talked with other prisoners and exercised.

“He established a routine for himself so he wouldn’t become passively controlled by the culture of being in prison,” Migdal said.

During his detention, Salem drafted a letter to the professors, which his brother relayed by email.

He had written that he was staying sane through yoga and meditation — Seattle stuff.

“You can take the boy out of Seattle, but you can’t take Seattle out of the boy,” Salem wrote, according to Migdal.

Salem had nearly finished field research when he was arrested, the professors said. As he adjusts to life outside prison, he plans to begin writing his dissertation, and they spent much of their video conversations discussing his research.

Although police seized his phone and computer, “he didn’t lose any of his research materials,” McCann said.

Salem’s case will continue, despite his release, and he has another court hearing scheduled for mid-January. Salem must check in at the police station each week. He is prohibited from leaving Egypt, according to Migdal.

The professors remain concerned about Salem’s pending court case.

“He’s so vulnerable,” McCann said.

Clampdown’s effects

El-Sadany, and other observers of Egypt, worry for Egypt, too.

“There are so many others like Walid [Salem] who have been detained,” she said. 

El-Sadany pointed to cases in Egypt like that of Ismail Alexandrani, a journalist and scholar sentenced to 10 years in prison on false news charges; Giulio Regeni, an Italian graduate student studying labor unions who was tortured and murdered in 2016 in murky circumstances; and Abdel Khalik Farouk, an economist arrested in October after publishing a book critical of the Egyptian government’s financial policies.

Waves of incarceration likely “leads to self-censorship” among Egyptians and make them less likely to engage in journalism, nongovernmental work or academia, El-Sadany said.

The broad applications of terrorism and false news charges “are having a chilling effect and shrinking civil society,” she said. “Any democratic, stable country needs to have a functioning, vibrant civil society.”

Salem’s experience also has pushed Migdal and McCann to re-evaluate research abroad as their concerns about security and academic freedom increase.

“Throughout the years, my research students have gone to various countries to see things on the ground,” Migdal said. “If you look at the Middle East now, you can’t go to Iraq. They can’t go to Iran. They can’t go to Syria. Lebanon is often questionable. Turkey is facing the arrests of academics … and now Egypt.”

The world, increasingly authoritarian in some areas, is more closed to students, he said.

McCann said students need to travel to the countries they study and see firsthand how governments and other institutions work.

“Otherwise, we’ll be stuck in the U.S. misunderstanding a lot of what goes on,” he said.