Three years after Waleed Salem was plucked off a Cairo street by plainclothes police officers, blindfolded and then imprisoned, the University of Washington doctoral student remains stuck in Egypt, unable to visit his young daughter or finish his dissertation in Seattle.
Salem, who was released from detention after about 200 days of imprisonment and never charged, twice has been prevented from leaving on flights away from Egypt.
Now Gov. Jay Inslee, Sen. Patty Murray and University of Washington administrators are pushing the Biden administration’s State Department to secure Salem’s freedom to travel. Those seeking mobility for Salem say the new presidential administration offers new hope.
“We feel our state’s senators are going to be listened to more than they were under our old administration,” said Michael McCann, a political-science professor at the University of Washington. “It’s been a very trying ordeal for Waleed.”
Salem, whose first name is also spelled Walid, disappeared after a meeting with a law professor in Egypt in May 2018. His family in Egypt, where Salem is a citizen, could not immediately find him.
Days later, family members were able to locate Salem in Tora prison near Cairo, where he would spend more than six months.
Salem, who was researching the Egyptian legal system, was among scholars, activists and journalists detained on suspicion of “belonging to a terrorist group” and “spreading false news” during the Egyptian government’s ongoing crackdown on free speech.
Egypt, a longtime destination for scholars and academics, has been transformed since the Arab Spring. Under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the country has increasingly clamped down on opposition voices and suppressed free expression, which has limited the freedom of researchers to ask questions about how the government works.
Salem was never charged with a crime, but he remained detained during court-renewed detention periods.
He spent about six months in prison, where he lost weight and developed a respiratory infection, but was not beaten or physically harmed. After his release, Salem returned to live with family in Egypt.
For more than a year afterward, he was required to check-in and sit for about two hours at the local police station twice a week, Salem said. He also was required to check in weekly with state security officials.
“It was a constant reminder the nightmare was not over,” Salem said during an interview last summer from Giza, Egypt.
Eventually, prosecutors gave Salem what he described as a “complete release,” although they never dropped the case in its entirety, according to Salem. He believed, after inquiries through academic connections to state security officials, that he was allowed to travel once again.
But when he booked a flight in May 2020 to the United States, Salem was flagged at passport control. The authorities seized his passport and told him to come back the next day to retrieve it.
He returned the next day, unsure if he’d be arrested or if he’d be allowed to fly. Instead, he received an interrogation about his reasons for traveling and his research.
Salem’s passport was never returned, but he was able to acquire a new one in October 2020, he said.
Late last month, Salem tried again to fly from Cairo. Through intermediaries, he alerted the state security officials of his plans to leave Egypt.
Still, Salem’s passport was flagged at the airport, and he was told that his name had been added the day before to a list of those banned from traveling.
Salem plans to challenge his new inclusion on that list in court.
Since Biden took office, Washington’s top politicians have lobbied to secure freedom for the UW doctoral student.
Inslee and University of Washington President Ana Marie Cauce in April wrote jointly to David Hale, serving then as the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, expressing their concern over the “de facto ban on international travel” for Salem and arguing it “sends a chilling message to other scholars and students who might wish to advance research and knowledge production in Egypt.”
They asked for Hale to urge the Egyptian government to allow Salem to travel to Seattle and complete his dissertation.
Sen. Murray wrote to the Egyptian embassy in Los Angeles and the U.S. State Department in Cairo, expressing dismay over the ban, which she described as a “human rights violation.”
Murray wrote that she was concerned that Salem had been unable to see his daughter who lives in Poland for the past three years because of the ban.
A U.S. Department of State official said in an email that the federal agency is following Salem’s case closely, remains concerned about his inability to travel and plans to continue to raise human-rights issues with Egyptian leaders.
Salem’s case also has drawn the attention and support of Scholars at Risk, a nonprofit organization working to protect academic freedom, and also the Middle East Studies Association of North America.
Salem now lives by himself in an apartment in Giza. Family members nearby are helping to support him financially. He is still working on his dissertation — a comparative study on the role of courts in different countries, including Egypt and Pakistan — but progress is slow. Most of his books and academic materials remain in Seattle.
“I have spent a lot of my life and my energy and attention for over a decade now on this project,” Salem said. “I need and want to finish it.”
His adviser, McCann, said Salem needs to be in Seattle to finish.
“The opportunity to think — it’s difficult where he is,” McCann said. “And his advisers and peers are here.”
Salem longs also to visit with his daughter, Layla, who is 12.
Given what happened to him, Salem’s ex-wife is reluctant to travel with his daughter to Egypt. Layla is unable to travel on her own. Without a source of income, Salem is unable to financially support a visit from his daughter.
“It’s painful that I’m not able to live with Layla, stay with Layla at a critical moment in her life,” Salem said, adding that she had been introduced — for better and worse — to the harshness and injustice of the world. The pair talks regularly on Skype.
McCann said he admires his student’s ability to maintain a good attitude.
“He’s very resilient,” McCann said.
Salem said he has struggled most with uncertainty. No one has ever indicated what about his research prompted his arrest.
“If anyone had any evidence against me, they should by now, have made it public or have told me what the fuss is about,” Salem said. “Why are they keeping me here?”