About a year ago, Egyptian authorities were faced with the case of Giulio Regeni, an Italian doctoral student who was in Egypt conducting research. He was found murdered after his disappearance in circumstances that remain unknown. Recently, Egyptian television showed a video in which Regeni appears talking with the head of the union of street vendors, who made a secret recording of the conversation in collaboration with the Egyptian police. Broadcasting the recording a year later seemed mainly intended to emphasize the government’s claim that Regeni was a spy; in fact, it drew renewed attention to the importance of efforts to protect academic freedom in Egypt.
I still remember the lively discussions that took place in March of last year within the working group on the independence of universities, an independent movement founded in 2004 by a group of Egyptian professors. This group was at the forefront in the field of defending rights and freedoms in the academic community, and which focused on the importance of working together. Collective pressure had been successful in the case of Kholoud Saber, a teaching assistant in the department of literature at Cairo University, who had been refused official permission to take part in a program of study at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. Later, students at the American University in Cairo held a meeting about academic freedom at which they touched on many matters linked to academic work and research and the protection of research students, and of course the case of Giulio Regeni was discussed. The meeting ended with a resolution by the students to hold similar meetings in the future, to ensure that discussion and cooperation would continue. And the working group on university independence also agreed to hold further monthly meetings, to conduct workshops and to publish reports on the state of academic freedom in Egypt.
Regrettably, such enthusiasm did not last, especially since in the months that followed, a series of violations of freedom and independence took place at public and private universities, and at the religious university al-Azhar (described by AFTE in a detailed report). No organized movements have been active, and no voice has been raised in criticism of what is happening: namely, an intensified attack on the freedom of teachers and faculty, and their work in research, teaching, publishing and scholarship.
On the other hand, Egyptian universities have been seeing clearly a rise in self-censorship. I have seen with my own eyes how professors in political and social science were afraid to respond to questions from their own students, fearing that their answers would be interpreted as “disapproving” of the present system of political power. The minister of higher education criticized an exam set for students of the faculty of law at Cairo University, which contained a question about the legal scope of an order issued by former President Morsi. Meanwhile, al-Azhar accused one of its professors of atheism – a charge more common in the Middle Ages.
Despite the numerous instances of violation of academic freedom in the past months, we have not read a single statement from a movement or a group of professors denouncing what is happening. Rather, it is quite possible to meet a professor informally who will tell you about violations he has witnessed, or that have been brought to his attention, while he remains unable to bring these matters to the attention of public opinion or civil society organizations. And some might think that incidents in which researchers have been arrested, as was seen recently in the case of Giulio Regeni, confirm concerns about the attitude of the security services to academic researchers. But the academic community does not want to discuss this.
It is necessary to consider the reasons for the fragmentation of efforts to defend academic freedom in Egypt. They can be summarized as follows:
First, academic freedom and the order of priorities. In the period leading up to the popular uprising of January 2011, university groups had been working on issues of university independence. They were concerned with limiting confrontation with the university’s own security force, and with issues of political freedom such as demonstrations and student elections.
But public speech in defense of academic freedom was weak because it focused on improving the living conditions of professors (which usually meant salary increases) and the exercise of their right to elect university leaders. Meanwhile, the students occupied themselves with issues that were mostly to do with politics arising from the polarization between secular and Islamist students.
Second: The organizational ability of university movements. There is no doubt that university movements involving both professors and students possessed great capabilities of organization, in the period both leading up to the uprising and after it. And there was much evidence of coordination among them. This was helped by the great enthusiasm for democracy and support for human rights within the academic community. This capability has been affected greatly in the past three years, as enthusiasm has evaporated and activists inside the universities have turned away in frustration, and members of the teaching staff have retreated into concern for their day-to-day work. The tendency to organize politically shrank to the level of influencing the direction of university departments.
I maintain that the situation of silence that we have witnessed recently has encouraged university administrations to proceed with policies that stifle academic freedom, and this has led to the decline in the quality of research and academic work that prevails in Egyptian universities today. The gap between Egyptian universities and universities abroad has widened as a consequence. Foreign researchers are unimpressed, research organizations are afraid of working in Egypt, and those that are working in Egypt will think about ending their work here. Continuing violations of academic freedom, without the slightest attempt to prevent them, are reflecting negatively on the standing of Egyptian universities as places that support research and thought, and will lead to a decline in professional competence worse than anything we saw during the time of President Hosni Mubarak.
Therefore, I call on civil society groups and the media to continue to conduct investigations into violations that are taking place in the universities. And I call on the activists among university professors and students to agree on a mechanism for prosecuting these violations; to state their position clearly; to recognize the importance of consultation with providers of legal support; and to continue to assist those who have been affected by violations of academic freedom.
I am not calling for anything new. But if I am being repetitive here, I do so for the rights of Regeni and other researchers, Egyptian and foreign, and for the sake of a better future for Egyptian universities.
Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salaam is a researcher and director on academic freedom issues at the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression in Cairo.