MONTREAL—An international network that helps persecuted academics and fights for the universal right to academic freedom has presented its highest award to “Egypt’s wrongfully detained students and scholars.” The award has only been given out twice before in the organization’s fifteen-year history.
Scholars at Risk, which is based at New York University, gave its 2016 Courage to Think Defender Award to those Egyptians in recognition of their “commitment to exercising the right to think, share and question ideas despite tremendous risks.”
Egypt’s military ousted Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist often described as the country’s first democratically elected president, in July 2013. Since then the government of former army leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has clamped down on critics of its rule.
Independent media outlets and non-governmental organizations have come under pressure or been closed for real or suspected challenges to the government. University professors have been a target for critical writings about the government, and students for protests on and off campus. (See related article “Report Says 2015 Was a Bad Year for Egyptian Students’ Freedom.”)
“Over the past several years,” the academic-freedom group said in a statement accompanying the award, it “has observed an overwhelming crackdown on Egypt’s higher-education community.” This has included “reported use of violence, wrongful prosecutions and imprisonment, professional retaliation and travel restrictions against scholars and students across the country.”
Hard figures are difficult to come by, but human-rights groups say several thousand university students and professors have been detained by security forces since the military take-over in July 2013. Those arrested are often accused of “joining a terrorist organization,” which is how the authorities refer to the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of former president Morsi.
In January, Egypt’s interior minister said that 3,462 jailed students would be allowed to take their exams, indicating that at least that number were being held at the beginning of the year.
Scholars at Risk believes 256 scholars have been detained for various lengths of time during the same period, after expressing views considered critical of the government.
The government has overturned two key provisions of university autonomy. It reversed an administrative court ruling in 2010 that barred the army from entering university campuses. (See related article “The March 9 Movement Meets New Challenges.”) And it reversed a practice, begun after the 2011 revolution, for university presidents to be democratically elected.
Instead, the current army-backed government of President al-Sisi resumed appointing university leaders. The government also changed the law to give university heads the power to expel students without warning or investigation. Many hundreds have reportedly been expelled after being accused of violence or illegal protests. In addition, the government has placed campuses under military control and introduced security agents to monitor students and faculty members. Some students detained for on-campus protests have been brought before military tribunals.
Emad El-Din Shahin, a prominent Egyptian political scientist, was sentenced to death in absentia in May 2015 on vague charges of espionage and undermining Egypt’s security. The sentence came at a mass trial in which former president Morsi and one hundred other defendants were also condemned to death.
Shahin is currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University, in Washington, DC. He says some 300 students have been killed in demonstrations against the government over the last three years, including 24 shot dead on university campuses. Thirteen faculty members have been killed during the same period, and 53 scholars have been dismissed from their faculty positions for political reasons.
“The universities are living in an Orwellian tragedy,” Shahin told Al-Fanar Media, referring to George Orwell, the British author best known for the dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-four. “Big brother is watching what you study or publish or say on TV. Society is becoming monotone, with only one voice being heard.”
The award was presented on June 9 at the once-in-two-years congress for Scholars at Risk in Montreal. Students from three U.S. universities and one Canadian institution who have been doing research and advocacy in favor of persecuted scholars accepted the award on behalf of the Egyptians.