Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network.
Do I sometimes self-censor? Yes. It is a highly contextual question, so I’ll try to answer it with as much nuance as I can, with the caveat that I am, to an extent, self-censoring even right now as I write this. Because this is not an “academic” publication understandable to a small minority of people, it will be translated into Arabic, and will be viewed by a larger audience than my blog or my peer-reviewed publications.
I think self-censorship, whether in our research (starting with WHAT, HOW and with WHOM to conduct our research), our teaching, or even our daily conversations with colleagues, is riskier in Egypt than, say, the United States. My U.S. colleagues often talk about the need to self-censor before they gain “tenure” because they want to maintain their job security; they speak as though once they are tenured, they no longer have to self-censor; a few who are self-aware will recognize that years of self-censorship may make them averse to fully using their academic freedom once they gain tenure—they will have internalized their oppression and been indoctrinated into the dominant culture. The situation for me as an Egyptian at an American University in Cairo is quite different.
Assuming You’re Under Surveillance
First of all, the risks of certain types of speech or research are high. I have to assume that I am being watched by local and international actors, who may judge my political intentions, make correlations between my social media clicks (I am very active on Twitter, now less active on Facebook), and draw conclusions that may lead to more surveillance of my activities (did I say “more”? Am I paranoid? Can you live in this part of the world without conspiracy theories swirling through your mind?) and possibly to arrest or imprisonment. I’ve gotten braver about talking about this. It has never happened to me, but it has happened to professors at my institution. Right now, with so much surveillance possible through digital means, you don’t have to be an activist on the streets to be taking a risk. (See a related article, “Egyptian Human Rights Scholar Detained, Fanning Broader Fears.”)