CAIRO—The vise on academic freedom in Egypt continues to tighten.
A Cairo court approved this week a permanent return of police to campuses, according to local news media. The court ruling followed a decision by the interim president Adly Mansour last week to allow university leaders to expel students for “endangering the educational process” and inciting or participating in violence, among other reasons. The move appeared aimed at students protesting against the government.
“The circle or cycle of repression is really widening,” said Emad Shahin, a scholar at the American University in Cairo who was indicted recently on charges of grand espionage. “It included journalists… It included academics and university professors, students. It’s becoming a really, really wide circle of violence and repression.”
Abdel Rahman Abdel Nasser, president of the engineering student union at Cairo University, said “It isn’t a single, individual decision—it is about the series of decisions taken lately to ensure control over students. Now any opinion that opposes that of the state is prone to get its holder not only expelled but also prosecuted.”
The presence of police is a particularly sensitive issue because in countries across the Arab world, including Egypt, it has historically led to a squelching of political activity on campuses.
Police officers were banned from Egyptian universities in 2010 but over the last several months, they have sporadically entered campuses to breakup anti-government demonstrations. Their use of force on campuses led to several deaths and dozens of student arrests amid an ongoing clampdown by authorities on opposition voices.
A Cairo University student, Hashem Barakat, said the court ruling is a step backward. “Our classmate Mohamed Reda was killed on campus last November by the same force they are trying to restore,” he said. “He was an engineering student and didn’t belong to any political party or partake in any demonstrations.”
“Given the current political situation, I can only imagine what kind of actions police guards will take against innocent students who may seem like they belong to a particular organization in Egypt—the Muslim Brotherhood—by students’ mere acts of dressing a certain way or practicing certain religious rituals,” said Hedy Ibrahim, a lawyer who specializes in international human rights. Some in Egypt are arguing that well-trained, politically neutral security guards could keep the peace on campuses and ensure that students who want to could get to class.
A Human Rights Watch statement released last week said that in December last year, authorities arrested a Cairo University law professor, Yasser al-Serafy, after the university’s president, Gaber Nassar, referred him to authorities for allegedly belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and raising politics during his lectures. Other academics, both professors and students, have faced charges and arrests during the past few months.
An American University in Cairo professor and a former parliament member, Amr Hamzawy, has been accused of insulting the judiciary for a comment he posted on Twitter.
Academics worldwide are rallying behind Shahin after charges were filed against him that also included leading an illegal organization.
Fellow faculty and staff members at the American University in Cairo have demanded that the State Security Prosecutor drop what they described as libelous charges and urged the university administration to make every possible effort to ensure that Shahin can keep teaching.
“We are dismayed to learn that our respected professor, Dr. Shahin, has been charged with a number of crimes, including espionage, leading an illegal organization, harming national unity and social harmony, and causing to change the government by force,” faculty members said in an online petition. “We categorically condemn these fabricated and malicious charges leveled against him.”
Shahin is currently in Washington D.C, where he was once a visiting professor at Georgetown University.
Last month, more than a dozen Georgetown professors sent a letter to the then-Egyptian interim Prime Minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, urging him to do everything in his power to reverse the decision indicting Shahin. The professors described Shahin as a man of “utmost integrity” who has been a “clear and tireless advocate” for democracy, human rights and rule of law.
“His activities are those of a scholar and of an individual of conscience who advocates for peaceful means and voices his support for a democratic and inclusive Egypt,” the letter said.
The Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America also raised its voice, sending a letter to the Ministry of Justice earlier this month to protest the charges. Shahin said there have been other outflows of support including from Notre Dame, where he used to teach.
“I’m really overwhelmed by this and I hope the Egyptian regime would read the message clearly—that this was really an uncalled for, unnecessary escalation,” Shahin said, in telephone interview.