News & Reports

Of Architecture Projects and Academic Freedom

CAIRO—The German University in Cairo ended its contract with Tarek Abol Naga, a professor of architecture at the university, after some senior projects he supervised were deemed “immoral.”

The university’s decision increases many observers’ concerns about the freedom of Egyptian students and professors to express themselves, a freedom which by most accounts has shrunk over the past two years. (See the related story: The Institutionalization of Academic Freedom Violations in Egypt.)

“This was a clear violation of academic freedom,” said Mohammed Abdulsalam, a researcher at the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression’s Academic Freedom and Student Rights Program.

According to a research paper released by the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression titled “The Concept of Academic Freedom,” academic freedom is being violated in numerous ways including restrictions on scientific research and requirements that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs approve international conferences in Egypt before they can be held. In addition, professors can’t travel abroad unless they get the ministry’s approval and pay a fee.

The latest incident is of particular importance as it took place in a private university under the supervision of Egypt’s Ministry of Higher Education and several German bodies.

Mina Maurice and Hussein Salem, two students at the GUC’s faculty of architecture, were surprised in July when the members of the university security force tore up the designs they worked on as part of their senior projects.

For several months, Maurice had worked to complete paintings and drawings as part of an architectural project based on the concept of nudity in human history. The other student, Salem chose the subject of feminine divinity in various civilizations. The students chose the ideas for the projects themselves. “I do not impose restrictions on my students’ ideas in the classes. This is a known practice followed by all universities worldwide,” said Abol Naga.

But the university administration destroyed the art exhibited on campus without consulting faculty members, apparently as a result of complaints filed by some students’ parents.

“The university imposed censorship on senior projects under the guise of morality,” said Salem. “This is an encroachment upon the knowledge and free education values that the university has long boasted of adopting.”

The university administration not only tore apart the boards, it also terminated its contract with the supervising professor, Tarek Abol Naga, who was in his second year at the university.

After learning of the decision to terminate his contract, Abol Naga contacted the dean of the faculty, who told him he was on his side. Naga said the dean explained to the university that the professor had informed the dean about the student projects and from the time the students began work on them. Nevertheless, the university terminated Abol Naga’s contract without clearly explaining the reasons for such a decision, the professor said.

Al-Fanar Media was unable to reach  the university administration due to the Muslim holiday, Eid Al-Adha.

Students at the German University in Cairo have accused the university administration of being arbitrary several times in the last few years. The most notable of those incidents was the administration’s expulsion of five students in 2012 and depriving others from taking their exams because of vigils to express their political opinions against the Military Council, beside other vigils to express their desire to change the student regulations and procedures to conduct student-union elections. Last year, the administration expelled seven students for participating in protests condemning the death of a female student who was run over by a university bus.

Mansour El-Mansi, the dean of the faculty of fine arts at Assiut University, said he doubted that the senior projects topics were behind the expulsion of Abol Naga. “The titles of the projects are not new, and were already discussed in postgraduate theses and research papers at Egyptian universities, and they were not the reason to stir up any trouble before,” he said. El-Mansi believes that the projects might have been used as an excuse to fire the professor for other reasons.

Abdulsalam, from the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, does not count on the law or the courts to support Abol Naga. But he hopes students will come to the aid of their professor. “Student support is crucial to attract the attention of public opinion to support the freedom of creativity,” he said.
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