The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has been following with great concern the state of student rights and freedoms in Egypt's public universities and the Al-Azhar university over the course of this year's first semester.
Through its ongoing work, the Academic Freedoms and Student Rights Program (ALSRP) at AFTE observed a worrying increase in the scale of violations of basic rights and freedoms at universities, including infringements on the right to education. Such unprecedented decline in freedoms, violation of rights, and disruption of academic process portends serious repercussions that will undermine the academic process and the protection of rights and freedoms at universities.
AFTE aims at elaborating its position regarding the totality of policies adopted by the authorities concerned with higher education, and the effect of these policies on the situation of rights and freedoms at universities, as well as setting out a range of recommendations for ensuring an uninterrupted academic process and for protecting rights and freedoms at universities.
The first part of this paper lists the policies and decisions restricting academic and student rights and freedoms which have been adopted by various authorities such as the Council of Ministers, Ministry of Interior, the Supreme Council of Universities (SCU), as well as the university administrations themselves. The second part deals with the risks and crises undermining academic life. The paper concludes with a range of urgent recommendations to all stakeholders of higher education. The 13 recommendations relate to the cases of detained students and professors, campus security, the freedom-restricting decisions of SCU, and the growing trend of student expulsion by university administrations.
Policies and Decisions Restricting Academic and Student Freedoms
The responsibility of enforcing freedom-restricting policies and decisions is spread across various authorities concerned with higher education, namely:
A) The Council of Ministers:
On October 31, 2013, the government of Dr. Hazem El Beblawy issued a decree to deploy police forces in the immediate vicinities around universities, granting them the right to enter campus upon the request of the president of the university or a prior authorization from the Public Prosecution, under the pretext of “protection of lives and university facilities”.
Moreover, with another decree issued on November 21, 2013, the transitional government granted police forces the right to enter campus without notification or prior authorization, if they perceive of danger to the lives of individuals on campus or a threat to university facilities.
These decisions have allowed police forces to enter university campus for the first time since the enforcement of the court ruling to remove the university guard units of the Ministry of Interior from campus following the revolution of January 25th.
B) Ministry of Interior
Police and Central Security Forces (CSF) of the Ministry of Interior intervened in most public universities and in Al Azhar University, on the basis of the decrees by the Council of Ministers. AFTE notes the fact that security forces relied heavily on the excessive and random use of force, including the use of shotguns, as well as the random arrest of scores of students from inside campus.
C) Supreme Council of Universities (SCU)
SCU issued several decisions, all of which were restrictive of academic and student rights and freedoms, contributing to the exacerbation of the situation within universities:
Imposing restrictions on the right to protest:
By the end of the first semester, some universities started to enforce the decision of SCU, issued on October 24, 2013, on the regulation of demonstrations on campus. SCU left it to each university to choose the appropriate time for implementation in its campus. The decision imposes restrictions on student meetings and protests, as it requires prior notification to the university's administration of the time at which the meeting or demonstration will be held; bans partisan meetings; and carries penalties up to irrevocable expulsion from the university.
Banning activities of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) students:
An SCU decision on 26 December 2013 prohibited events and activities of Muslim Brotherhood students in universities, based on the December 25, 2013 decree by the Council of Ministers which declared MB a terrorist organization. SCU's decision covers student protests, whereby terrorism penalties decreed by the Council of Ministers apply to participants in the protests of MB students.
Prohibiting electoral campaigns:
An SCU decision on February 13, 2014 prohibited the organization of all political activities in universities in support of parliamentary or presidential candidates in the upcoming elections, on the ground that universities must remain impartial to all candidates.
Expulsion upon a decision by the president of the university
SCU decided on adding a new article (184 bis.) to the Law on Universities, enacted by decree of the President of the Republic on February 16, 2014. The article states that “The president of the university may impose the penalty of irrevocable expulsion on a student who engages in or contributes to acts of disrupting or undermining academic process; targeting university facilities, exams, or operations; assault on individuals or private or public property; or incitement of students to violence or use of force; upon an investigation by the university within one week of the occurrence of such an act, to be advised to the student by registered mail. The penalty may be appealed before the competent University Disciplinary Boards. The composition of a disciplinary board should include one member of the Council of State and one professor of law at faculties of law. The decisions of Disciplinary Boards may be appealed before the Supreme Administrative Court (circuit of competent jurisdiction)”.
D) University Administrations
Through its Student Observatory network of correspondents and its legal assistance efforts, AFTE has detected an unprecedented expansion in the referral of students to investigation and to Disciplinary Boards as well as decisions of expulsion by university and faculty administrations throughout the semester.
As most presidents of universities relied on calling police forces into campus, AFTE has not identified any serious attempts, with the exception of Cairo University, to improve the performance of the administrative security personnel. Also, university administrations failed to provide legal defense or to exert pressure to secure the release and acquittal of detained students.
Risks and Crises Undermining Academic Life
Public universities and Al-Azhar University are facing several risks and crises that undermine the stability of academic life and the right to education. AFTE well understands the political situation the country is going through, the polarization of certain segments of society, and the intensification of political confrontation; however, we still attribute the decline in academic and student rights and freedoms in universities mainly to flawed decisions and policies adopted by government authorities and academic bodies concerned with higher education, having contributed significantly to the following crises and risks:
- Interruption of the academic process with a negative impact on academic life, the second semester being postponed for a whole month. The academic process was hit hard by police intervention (36 recorded cases where police forces intervened to breakup student protests and strikes in 12 public universities and in Al-Azhar University, between October 25 and December 31, 2013).
- Threatening the lives of students on campus as a result of excessive and random use of force by police forces against civilians, killing 10 people and injuring scores of others.
- Arrest of students on campus or in its immediate vicinity by police forces, some of whom were sentenced to terms of imprisonment of varying lengths. Detained students were not able to take their exams.
- Expulsion of hundreds of students from many universities, with Al-Azhar University alone having expelled 200 students at least.
- Arresting scores of faculty members, which negatively impacts academic freedom (Sherif Farag, a teaching assistant at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Alexandria University, defended his Master’s thesis in prison).
- Banning a number of student activities, and breaking up marches and protests.
As AFTE stresses that the environment described above poses a serious threat to academic and students rights and freedoms, and to the autonomy of universities, we warn of the negative consequences of these flawed and ill-advised policies. Therefore, AFTE concludes with a number of recommendations directed at all stakeholders of higher education, as well as the authorities responsible for the interrogation of detained students and faculty members. AFTE calls upon all stakeholders to discuss these recommendations and to work towards safeguarding autonomy at universities as well as the rights and freedoms of students and faculty members. The recommendations are set out as following:
1- Releasing students and faculty members currently under preventive detention pending adjudication, out of concern for their academic careers. In this respect, AFTE has recently submitted an updated report on the number of detained students to Minister of Higher Education Wael El-Degwy including data on 1328 detained students.
2- Ensuring humane treatment for detained students. AFTE has taken notice of some cases of torture, as well as an increase in the number of students suffering medical complications without appropriate care being provided.
3- Undertaking of legal and moral responsibilities by university administrations with regard to providing legal assistance and defense to their detained students, and safeguarding their academic rights and their right to take their exams.
4- Immediate cease of police interventions in universities; and adherence to the ruling of the Supreme Administrative Court on the removal of University Guards from campus, given that it is a final and irrevocable ruling.
5- Ensuring transparency and impartiality in the investigation of the cases of students killed on campus.
6- Protection of students against harassment and violations by police forces deployed in the vicinity of universities; and cease of arrests on and off campus.
7- Developing administrative security and training to its personnel.
8- Revision of all decrees by SCU; repealing restrictions on the right to peaceful protest, the exercise of student activities, and free expression of opinion.
9- Repealing article (184 bis.) of the Law on universities, which allows the presidents of universities to expel students; and adherence to the opinion of the Legislation Section of the Council of State which refuted such authority due to the lack of legislative reasoning or public interest behind it, and the damage it inflicts on academic process, particularly in light of the adequacy of investigative and disciplinary measures already foreseen to deal with disruptive actions.
10- Revision of all decisions of expulsion, particularly those carrying long periods (one semester or more); limiting recourse to expulsion as a penalty; and allowing defense counsels to attend without obstruction the investigations and disciplinary board meetings carried out in all public universities and Al-Azhar University.
11- Assessing applications for students residing in university dormitories on the sole ground of academic achievement, disregarding security reports; and cease of recourse to eviction from dormitories as a penalty for political activism.
12- Adherence to peacefulness in all forms of student activities, protests and marches; and ensuring no disruption to academic activity or exams.
13- Initiation of meaningful dialogue among representatives of student unions, student movements, faculty, and university administration officers towards resolving recurring crises and safeguarding the principles of autonomy at universities.