A couple of weeks ago, Egyptian political scientist Emad Shahin was charged by the Egyptian government with espionage, forcing him to flee Egypt before he could be arrested. Professor Shahin, who was teaching at the American University of Cairo, is someone I know fairly well, as he was my professor while in grad school for a seminar on comparative politics of the Middle East and a course on political Islam, and supervised my masters thesis on Islamist parties that supported an opening to the West (although we haven’t been in touch in some years). The notion that he is a spy trying to undermine Egypt is, to put it bluntly, quite insane. I echo Nathan Brown’s comment that it is more likely that Joe Biden is a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army than that the charges against Professor Shahin are accurate. The charges in the indictment include espionage, leading an illegal organisation, providing a banned organisation with information and financial support, calling for the suspension of the constitution, preventing state institutions and authorities from performing their functions, harming national unity and social harmony, and causing to change the government by force. This last one is particularly laughable coming from a government that sits where it does because it carried out a military coup.
In all the time I spent with Professor Shahin, I found him to be fair, open-minded, intellectually honest, accepting of criticism, and above all imbued with a deep love and concern for his country. He was someone who recognized very early on that governments in the region would have to engage with political Islam and he tried to suggest ways in which this could happen, but he was not in any way a water carrier for or even supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, an advocate of violence, or tolerant of authoritarianism in any guise. My masters thesis back in 2007 argued that Islamist parties were the ones most likely to be successful in Muslim-majority states and that the U.S. should identify ways of supporting Islamist parties amenable to coexisting with the West, with a focus on the ideological evolution of Ennahda in Tunisia and the AKP in Turkey. The Muslim Brotherhood was not one of the parties I identified as being sympathetic to the West, and Professor Shahin never suggested in any way that it was or argued that it was a moderate body worthy of Western support. Professor Shahin was also modest, reserved, soft spoken, and respectful to everyone with whom I ever saw him interact. In short, it boggles the mind that anyone would possibly think he is a covert Muslim Brotherhood leader seeking to overthrow the current Egyptian government in favor of an Islamist regime.
More broadly though, the nonsensical charges against Professor Shahin point to something I argued months ago, namely that crackdowns by an authoritarian government on one group always lead to the spread of a much wider net designed to ensnare all opposition of any stripe. Professor Shahin has been consistently critical of authoritarianism in Egypt, from the Mubarak regime to the Muslim Brotherhood government under Mohamed Morsi to the current military government. It is no surprise that the government is now trying to portray him as a Muslim Brotherhood stooge, as it has based its legitimacy on eliminating what it has deemed a terrorist threat and so the strategy is to lump anyone it can under that umbrella. But charging Professor Shahin with espionage and charging Amr Hamzawy with insulting the judiciary, both of whom are part of what might be deemed the liberal opposition, is a harbinger of what is to come, which will be a crackdown on non-Islamist critics of the government. When I wrote in Foreign Affairs in August that the Islamists were the first target but wouldn’t be the last and compared the situation in Egypt to that in Tunisia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali quickly moved against his secular and liberal opponents after he had dispatched Ennahda, some veteran Egypt experts argued that I was wrong and that the response to the Brotherhood was “special” so that liberals would be discredited but not put down. I take no pleasure in the fact that the Shahin affair appears to be vindicating my position, and I’d add that this is unlikely to be an isolated incident. Each situation is unique, but there is a reason that political scientists like to compare things, and if Tunisia continues to serve as a reliable guide – and I think that it will – the critical non-Islamist press, politicians, academics, and intellectuals are going to start finding themselves on the wrong end of these types of bogus charges with an unsettling frequency.
I hope that enough pressure is put on the Egyptian government, both internally and externally, to have the charges against Professor Shahin dropped so that he can return to his country if he so chooses. If he is forced to spend the rest of his time in the U.S., however, it will be American academia’s gain and another unnecessary loss for Egypt.