Alaa El-Shafei is a historian of the Modern Middle East with broad interests in questions of violence and carcerality. He is currently completing his dissertation, entitled “Convicts on the Nile: Prisons and the Making of Modern Egypt,” which places prisons at the heart of colonial rule and nationalist activism. Using a range of archival sources and memoirs in Arabic, English, French, and Ottoman Turkish, the dissertation recovers the voices of ordinary Egyptians who suffered at the hands of the colonial state while serving its interests in Egypt and Sudan. Anticolonial activists saw prisons as the limit of political possibility. This understanding led them to contest the state’s power to punish, initiating a struggle that continues to shape the social and cultural meanings of freedom, struggle, and punishment to this day.
Beyond his dissertation, Alaa has ongoing projects on the histories of policing, law, and criminal justice in Egypt and their intertwinement with political thought and practice in the postcolonial era.
Alaa’s research has been supported by the American Research Center in Egypt, the Graduate School of Arts and Science Mellon Dissertation Research Fellowship, and the Sakip Sabanci Center for Turkish Studies, among others. He has conducted archival research in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and the UK. Before joining Columbia, Alaa worked for the International Organization for Migration in Yemen and at the Cairo Peacekeeping Center. He obtained his BA at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.