Cairo—To pay his expenses, Sohag University business student Ahmed Lutfi Al-Masoud often goes to Jordan to work as a field hand, earning about 200 Jordanian dinars ($140) a month.
But now he will need permission from the Egyptian government to leave the country, a requirement that he believes will jeopardize his academic career.
“This has eliminated my chances to work—it’s not easy to find work here,” said Al-Masoud. “I help my family with this money, as well as cover my studying expenses.”
Late last month, the government issued a decree banning male students between the ages of 19 and 29 from traveling abroad without permission. The decree makes exceptions for those visiting parents; performing the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimages; seeking health care treatment abroad; traveling due to the death of a close relative; or representing Egypt at conferences, seminars, or artistic and sporting events abroad.
The decree was issued without explanation, but students and professors say they believe it is intended to prevent males from evading military service as well as stop students from joining terrorist organizations abroad.
“The government is protecting itself and students from the risk of recruitment by extremist groups,” said Mohammed Kamal, a professor of ethics at Beni-Suef University in central Egypt, and spokesman for the Independent Syndicate of Faculty Members, a professors’ association.
Regardless, many say the decree will have a significant impact on universities. That’s because more than 32,000 university students in Egypt travel abroad annually to earn money to support themselves, according to a study called “Our Students – Migratory Birds” by Right to Work, an independent advocacy organization, in September 2014.
Most students go to other Arab countries, with the top destinations being Libya, Jordan and Sudan, the report said. Only about 20 percent travel to Western countries such as the United States, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and Greece.
Still, Kamal thinks the decree won’t make much of a difference, saying that the two leading countries attracting students for employment reasons, Libya and Jordan, are now tougher to work in anyway: Libya has become a conflict zone and Jordan has started requiring Egyptians to obtain work visas.
“Libya is currently the most dangerous for the students, as they can be exposed to kidnapping or recruitment by terrorist groups such as Islamic State,” Kamal said.
But Ibrahim Shaaban, a third-year science student at Cairo University, said the decision is too restrictive.
“The decision needs to be modified a little bit to allow the travel of those who get a scholarship to study abroad,” he said.
Israa Ayed, a student of English at Ain Shams University in Cairo, agreed, saying it only hurts those pursing academics.
“Those who want to join terrorist groups abroad will not travel in legitimate ways,” she said. “This decision hinders students pursuing study-abroad programs.”
Travel restrictions are not new in Egypt: Since June 30, 2013, the Egyptian government has required citizens between the ages of 18 and 45 to obtain approval from the intelligence agency before traveling to many countries, including Sudan, Yemen, Turkey, Qatar, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Some restrictions are only applicable to males.
According to Cairo-based attorney Ahmed Zeki, the decree violates constitutional guarantees of free movement for all citizens.
“The travel ban is only possible if a court issues one, or when the attorney general gives such an order to prevent those under investigation from fleeing,” he said.
So far, the decision has not been directly implemented, according to Abdullah Anwar, the head of Cairo University’s student union. “I do not have any information about decisions to ban or restrict travel. I have asked the administration of Cairo University for a copy of the decision to check the details,” he said.
Mustafa Zayed, an engineering student at Minya University in Upper Egypt, has often traveled to Sudan during summer vacations to work at a branch of an Egyptian contracting company. Zayed said that he has avoided getting involved in politics at the university out of fear of being banned from traveling abroad. Now, he says that was all in vain.
“The decision was shocking to me,” he said. “This decision applies to everyone, those who take part in political activities, and those who do not.”