Egypt’s Besieged Universities

The country’s scholars had better teach from President Sisi’s textbook — or else.

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Egyptian students and professors will soon return to universities which are experiencing the lowest levels of academic freedom the country has ever known. In the last academic year alone, 761 students have been arrested and 281 expelled for participating in political activities on campus. A university professor was sentenced to death for “conspiring to undermine Egypt’s national security” after writing articles critical of the regime. Another awaits trial for insulting the judiciary in a critical tweet.

This last year marked a shift away from the open confrontations between students and security forces that marred the 2013-14 academic year. Instead, the state has adopted a more subtle approach: quietly silencing critical academics, narrowing the scope of academic research, and instilling a spirit of fear across campuses. This stealthy crackdown is just part of the Sisi regime’s wider campaign to control public discourse and dictate the political narrative. Amid tepid economic growth and a deteriorating security situation, the state isn’t taking any chances: it will not tolerate dissent or opposition, whether it takes place in the streets, in newsrooms, or in classrooms.

“What we are witnessing now is the institutionalization of violations against Egyptian academics, violations that far exceed those which we saw during Mubarak’s time,” said Ahmed Abd Rabou, a professor of comparative politics at Cairo University.

The crackdown began in June 2014, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree giving him the authority to personally appoint the presidents and deans of all public universities. This move undid reforms instituted after the 2011 revolution that allowed universities to appoint their own officials via internal elections. In September, the cabinet followed the president’s decree with a law giving university officials the right to fire staff and professors with no disciplinary review.

“I watched many deans from different schools across the university get switched out because they supposedly supported the Muslim Brotherhood,” Abd Rabou said. “Now for someone to be appointed, he doesn’t have to be the best in his field, he just has to be in line with the regime. And those who do get appointed aren’t primarily concerned with protecting academic freedom. They care about satisfying the political platform of the current regime.”

Professors who have survived the cull face greater scrutiny than ever before — not just from their superiors, but from their peers and the media, said Mohammed Abdel Salam, a researcher for the Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression. “In Mansoura University, a professor of philosophy, Adel Badr, was serving on a review panel for a Master’s student,” Abdel Salam said. “The conversation shifted off topic to how great Sisi was or some such thing. Badr politely disagreed and tried to get back on topic — and you know what? He ended up on the 10 p.m. news that night, being called a traitor and a corruptor.”

As a result, professors are doing all they can to avoid political discussions and are advising their students not to research certain topics. “This sort of self-censorship will bring down the academic level of the entire university, especially in the social sciences,” Abdel Salam said. “There will soon be no free thinking. No independent thinking.”

And it’s not just social scientists under scrutiny. Mohammed Ezz Elarab, a recent graduate from the Faculty of Engineering at Alexandria University, said engineering students need to be careful of which materials they use and which projects they work on. Any device that could conceivably have some military use is off limits. Ezz Elarab knew of a student who was arrested for attempting to build a bomb because he had been seen working with a variety of electronic components, chemicals and copper wires — all for his university-approved final project. “So now the majority of the professors at universities, who are supposed to be encouraging creativity, are afraid that creative projects will just get everyone in trouble,” Ezz Elarab said.

It’s this spirit of fear that worries Abd Rabou the most. “The problem is not the people in uniforms storming in, firing teargas,” Abd Rabou said. “The real fear is that a colleague will spy on you.… There’s an environment of fear because everyone believes he’s being watched.”

But the state is not only monitoring the research coming out of universities — it’s also watching what ideas come in. According to Abdel Salam, Cairo’s Ain Shams University recently canceled its study abroad program in Turkey and no longer allows its students to travel there for language study. Damanhour University in the Nile Delta region also announced it would no longer allow any cooperation with foreign universities.

Taking things a step further, Sisi issued a decree last May banning all academics from traveling outside the country without prior authorization from state security, giving the state direct control over which conferences academics can attend and what sources they can use in their research. This decree is in direct opposition to Article 21 of the Egyptian constitution, which guarantees the independence of academic institutions. It also violates Article 62, which reads: “no citizen may be prevented from leaving the State territory.”

The crackdown on universities has extended beyond the classroom into extracurricular activities. Last fall, Cairo University banned all student political groups and on-campus demonstrations in an effort to curb the wave of on-campus violence from the year before, which left 17 students dead and hundreds injured.

Student groups, and in particular the outspoken and unruly Students Against the Coup, have continued to defy this order, organizing regular marches and demonstrations on campuses across the country calling for Morsi’s return to power. Since the popularly-backed military takeover in July 2013, this group has been one of the new regime’s boldest opponents, using university campuses to organize and speak out against what they view to be an assault on democracy. When mass arrests failed to deter the group, Sisi declared in October that all “public and vital facilities” — including, in this case, universities — would fall under the jurisdiction of the military and that any crimes taking place there would be referred to military courts. 89 students were tried before military courts in the 2014-15 academic year.

“What concerns us most … is the very high number of wrongful detentions of students,” said Clare Robinson, Director of Protection Services for the Scholars At Risk network. “The university space in Egypt is shrinking and my concern is that Egypt is moving from being a place with potential for public discourse to a place of self-censorship.”

Inside this shrinking space, four young lawyers are pushing back. The Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, founded last August, provides legal aid to detained students. They’ve handled 80 successful cases to date, most involving dozens of students. In nearly every case, the students were never formally charged and were simply kept in administrative detention for as long as the courts could manage. “The courts don’t decide who gets released; the national security apparatus does,” said Ramadan Elzoghby, one of the Adalah Center’s lawyers. “They know who the leaders of on-campus groups are and they tell the courts to keep them as long as they can.”

The few students who have actually stood trial and been convicted have all been tried on charges of breaking the “protest law,” which prohibits organizing a public meeting or demonstration without prior approval from the state. “The way the law is phrased, it’s hard for anyone to get around it,” Elzoghby said. “Anyone standing on the street could be convicted of breaking it, basically.”

The center is currently assisting 150 students out of an estimated 1,850 in detention. However, Elzoghby fears the worst is yet to come: since August 17, the state has had a new anti-terrorism law at its disposal, allowing it to jail people for up 10 years for being members of a “terrorist organization.” “While most of our students aren’t members of the Brotherhood, many of them are members of Students Against the Coup, which is the same thing in the government’s eyes,” Elzoghby said.

For Abd Rabou, the future of academic freedom in Egypt has become so bleak that he has opted to leave the country, accepting a short-term teaching position at the University of Denver. Many serious academics feel this is their only remaining option.

“You can either leave the country or you can stay and wait for a political opportunity,” Abd Rabou said. “But unless you have a real independent campus, you’ll never be able to enhance your [country’s] education. You create people who are loyal to the system; bureaucratic academics who can’t think outside the box.”

In the photo, student supporters of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood protest against Egypt’s military rule in Cairo University on February 22, 2015.

Photo credit: Amr Sayed/apaimages/SIPA

Correction, Sep. 1, 2015: Mohammed Abdel Salam works at the Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression as a researcher, not a lawyer, as an earlier version of this article mistakenly stated.

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