The Institutionalization of Academic Freedom Violations in Egypt

The 2013/2014 academic year witnessed bloody confrontations and violent student protests after the overthrow of President Mohammad Morsi and the crackdown on the al-Nahda and Rabaa al-Adawiya protests. These events were followed by severe political tension that has damaged academic freedom. The last academic year seemed quieter and less bloody, which might give the impression that higher education in Egypt is more stable and free. But that impression would be wrong.

In fact, the violation of academic freedom in Egypt has been institutionalized in an unprecedented way over the past year, causing deterioration in university education and creating a great educational recession the likes of which has not been seen for a long time.

During the academic year 2014/2015, a number of measures were taken to curb academic freedom and hamper university independence.  Among these were the following:

1. On June 24, 2014, the president issued a decree to amend Law (49) on the organization of university affairs. The new decree will cancel a new system of elections put in place after the 2011 revolution and will place control over the selection of university presidents and deans in the president’s office.

2. After one year, another amendment was issued for Law (49), which will allow for a great deal more political favoritism for those academics whom the government likes. Some professors will be allowed to take longer paid leaves of absence during which they do not have to teach. The rules for selecting faculty members are being made more vague, instead of relying on strict, clear measures, such as academic scores. Political factors instead of merit could easily win the day in the appointment of new faculty members.

3. Another amendment introduced in January 2015 by the president allows the government to suspend any professors from their jobs with no notification, no ability to confront the accusations against them, and no formal hearing.

4. The Minister of Higher Education has written to university presidents and deans and told them to require any university professor who is traveling abroad for academic reasons to go through a security examination (national security, general intelligence, and military intelligence) before granting travel approval. Attending international scholarly meetings and working with international partners are basic functions of modern academic life. Academics regard this new restriction as a clear infringement on university independence, which is provided for in the Egyptian constitution.

5. Students are being tried in military courts instead of in civilian courts. A study by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms found that 184 students were referred to military courts in Egypt – including 21 school students and 163 university students – between October 2014 and May 2015. They were charged with offenses such as belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, inciting violence, protesting without obtaining permission, possessing weapons and attacking public institutions. Seventeen students have been killed on university campuses during the past two academic years. The failure of universities to determine who performed these killings has created a strong desire for revenge among students, causing conflicts and terrifying violence inside universities and within Egyptian society at large.

6. More than 260 students were dismissed arbitrarily without any true investigations, on the basis of accusations by security forces that the students had committed violent attacks. Dismissals were not subject to any standards of justice. Students were dismissed before any investigations and were told to complain later. In a very few cases, students’ complaints were accepted.

7. Two faculty members (instructors and lecturers) were suspended arbitrarily but were denied their right to receive a suspension letter so that they could resort to court. These violations also included referring professors to disciplinary committees and suspending them from their work because of their views and scientific discussions inside classrooms or the discussion of students’ scientific dissertations. Academic violations also included intervening in the titles of dissertations and in some cases refusing admission of students in master’s or doctoral programs because they wanted to write about critical political issues, especially those related to the legitimacy of the current regime. Some university professors were dismissed for being absent, when the reality was that they were being detained in Egyptian prisons. Emad Shahin, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, was sentenced to death in absentia for unproven charges and under the allegation of spying for foreign agencies. Shahin is well known for his opinions against the current regime in Egypt.

The past academic year came to a close in a less bloody atmosphere compared to the year before, which convinced some people that Egyptian universities are on the right track to maintain stability and regain their long-awaited academic freedom. But a closer look at reality shows the last academic year has seen more alarming restrictions on academic freedoms. The government issued laws and decrees that will pave the way for more repression in the coming years. Those who care about academic and research affairs should use all possible means to force the authorities to stop this repression.

Civil society organizations should work together to maintain the university independence created by the March 9 movement. Independent universities and academic freedom are fundamental building blocks of a civilized society.  A government should not be consumed with fear of what academics might say or do and instead understand that the real danger is that muzzled universities and silenced professors cannot build help build a strong country.

* Ahmed Abd Rabou is an assistant professor of comparative politics at Cairo University and a visiting scholar in the Middle East Studies Center at the University of Denver. 
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