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In the Arab World, an Academic Freedom Report Focuses on Egypt

A new report on academic freedom catalogs the use of travel bans in Egypt and says they are used to punish academics involved in political and human-rights activism. In one instance, travel restrictions were even used to try to recall an Egyptian academic who was already abroad, the report says.

Free to Think 2016 is published by the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, a program of Scholars at Risk, based at New York University. The report compiles 158 cases of actions against academics in 35 countries over a 16-month period.

Among Arab countries, the most attacks on academics (involving job losses, travel bans, imprisonments and one killing) were recorded in Egypt. In the Middle East as a whole, Turkey stands out with 20 recorded incidents, mostly connected t0 the July 15 coup attempt and the resulting purges of civil servants, soldiers and academics seen as threats to the government. In Yemen and Syria, academics have been murdered by religious extremists in the wars.

In Egypt, the travel bans occurred in the context of a broader political crackdown. Human Rights Watch estimated that there were at least 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt in 2015.  Restrictions on travel are being imposed on other categories of citizens, including male students. Egyptians who seek to travel to Turkey, Qatar, Libya, and Syria need advance approval. (Turkey and Qatar are viewed as countries hospitable to the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement deposed by Egypt’s current government. Libya and Syria are seen as hotbeds of terrorism.)

In Egypt’s public universities, state security agencies have long been involved in public universities, tracing back to well before the 2011 revolution. But punitive or coercive measures taken by security agencies against academics have intensified since the first edition of this report was published in 2015, according to Hussein Magdy, one of the report’s contributors.  The ministry of higher education first began requiring that professors apply for permission to travel in May 2015 and complaints have arisen that at least one university, Cairo University, has used applications for approvals as an occasion to ask professors for money.  But the security agencies review these applications and also separately may seek to prevent anyone from traveling.

For its part, the government insists that the close scrutiny of academics is important to maintaining the stability that prevents Egypt from succumbing to the kind of chaos that has enveloped Syria and Libya.

When it comes to the travel bans being used punitively, the report details the case of Kholoud Saber, a teaching assistant in psychology at Cairo University. In 2015 she was on a doctoral research sabbatical in Belgium. Her university notified her that her sabbatical had been revoked, and she had to return to Egypt or else lose her teaching position at Cairo University.

No reason was given for the decision. Kholoud Saber had been visible as an advocate for women’s rights and academic freedom in Egypt, notably as an activist with the legal aid group Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression.

At first, she said, her university offered her no defense against the decision. But she was able to file a lawsuit challenging the order in the administrative court, which handles public-sector cases and has a reputation for political impartiality. The case attracted media attention, and in response, her sabbatical was reinstated.

“This is a new thing,” Kholoud Saber said in an interview. “I know of ten university activists who in the past five or six months were subjected to travel bans. It is part of a battle between human-rights groups and the government.” A person subject to a travel ban may get what appears to be permission to travel, and then learn they have been forbidden to travel only when they attempt to go through passport control, she said. No reason for the ban is given.

In a similar case, a travel ban earlier this year prevented Mohammed Hassan Soliman, a lecturer in electrical engineering at Ain Shams University in Cairo, from attending the most prominent conference in his field, held this year at the University of Denver in the United States. Soliman had received a grant from the U.S. Fulbright Commission to attend the conference, and an American visa. He was refused Egyptian security approval, a condition of travel, by the university administration, acting on behalf of a security agency. Despite legal support from the activist law organization, the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, security approval remained withheld and the Fulbright Commission had to cancel its grant. No reason for the travel ban was given, as is usually the case.

Hussein Magdy said that fear of the travel ban has had a chilling effect on academics. An academic planning to travel abroad to a conference or to conduct research can’t be sure that they will be allowed to leave the country. “It makes you re-think what you might say or publish,” he said.

Magdy said the travel bans were likely issued by the Egyptian National Security agency, which deals with internal and border security and counterterrorism, putting into practice the tightening government restrictions on public discourse.

Academics were subjected to travel bans to isolate them from international attention, Magdy said: Egyptian academics are often seen as articulate and not easily discredited politically, unlike foreign nonprofit organizations. Also, he said, the measure is discreet and undramatic, and does not attract prolonged media coverage.

The Scholars at Risk report notes: “Thousands of students and hundreds of scholars imprisoned prior to this reporting period remain in prison, many for peacefully exercising their right to free expression and association. More recent state actions include killings, arrests, [as well as] the increased imposition of travel restrictions – typically on the basis of purported security concerns – against both Egyptian and non-Egyptian scholars and students.”


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