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Crackdowns on campus: Academic freedom a fading memory in Sisi's Egypt

Following the January 2011 revolution, Egyptian universities were making great gains in the fight for academic freedom and independence. Today, under the pretence of combatting terrorism, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government has cracked down hard on university campuses — one of the last refuges for debate and dissent.

Riot police officers take positions in front of Cairo University, as students who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed President Mohamed Morsi, plan a protest
Riot police officers take positions in front of Cairo University, as students who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed President Mohamed Morsi, plan a protest

REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Tall concrete walls lined with metal bars surround the area. Members of a private security company equipped with metal detectors stand guard in front of digitized gates installed to control access to the buildings housed within. Armoured vehicles belonging to government security forces occupy the surrounding streets, and soldiers stand by, ready to deploy.

This is what Cairo University, one of the oldest public universities in Egypt, looks like today. Thousands of students walk past this heavily militarised scene every day on their way to class.

Since Mohammed Morsi was ousted from the presidency on 30 June 2013, universities have been on the frontline of anti-government protests. Most student protesters are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and regard the turn of events as a military coup. But the unrest is not just limited to the Brotherhood; other student groups have also joined in to protest against the on-going crackdown and the mounting restrictions on university freedoms.

Confrontations between students and the police force were no longer limited to clashes outside of universities; they steadily moved onto campuses and even student residences. One day in November 2013, the courtyard of the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University was witness to a scene of fear and chaos.

Policemen, officers and conscripts were firing tear gas and birdshot, and students were fleeing in all directions. One student, on hearing the deafening sound of gunfire, turned around to find his colleague lying on the ground. “I found him lying in front of me, Muhammed Rida, God rest his soul. People gathered around him and I found his body convulsing violently. Some people were looking at his left side and found a hole in his body. They lifted his t-shirt and I saw a wound. I couldn't stop it from bleeding,” he said in his testimony before the prosecutor.

Muhammed Rida died simply because he was present at the Faculty of Engineering at the time of the crackdown. His killer has yet to be brought to justice.

In June 2014, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took office. Determined to suppress all forms of dissent in Egypt, he stepped up security crackdowns on public universities, which by then had emerged as one of the last remaining spaces to express opposition. In its annual report for 2014, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression monitored 88 cases of police crackdowns on Egypt's public universities and Al-Azhar University. Twelve students were killed on campuses and in the areas around them. 760 students were arrested, and only 99 have been released so far.

While universities are expected to protect their students and staff on campus, it is not viable to discuss accomplishing such protection without first ensuring an environment that facilitates and respects academic freedom and the independence of universities.

For a number of years after the January 2011 revolution, and even shortly before that, Egyptian universities made great gains in academic freedom and independence.

In October 2010, just a few months prior to the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak, a final court ruling by Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court banned the presence of security forces on university campuses. All offices of the Ministry of Interior present on university grounds were closed. “According to that which is decreed in the constitution and the law to ensure the independence of universities, and in order for universities to fulfil their role, it is required to commit to the rules adhered to by advanced nations in the maintenance of the independence of their universities and educational institutions,” the ruling stated.

The return of security forces to campus grounds and their assault on the independence of academic institutions are not the only recent signs of backsliding from the gains made by Egypt's academic society in recent years.

Today, under the pretence of combatting terrorism, holding contrary opinions has become a crime, protesting has become a crime, and the people’s constitutional right to free expression has been banned.

For a few years before el-Sisi assumed office, heads of universities had been elected by deans and members of faculty. In 2014 he amended the law governing universities, and gave himself the power to appoint university presidents and even heads of faculty. Early in 2015, under another decree that allows for the dismissal of faculty members based on their actions inside the universities, professors accused of participating in party or political activities on campus have been removed from their posts. Most recently, academics have even been banned from traveling without prior security authorisation from the Ministry of Higher Education.

In an environment where the government imposes such strict control over higher education institutions and intervenes in their affairs, and in which security forces have a free hand to deal with student protests, whether peaceful or violent, how are universities supposed to effectively protect their students and staff?

It is impossible to ignore the use of violence by students belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Brotherhood's attempts to take control when the organisation was at the helm of the country. But there can be no comparison between the current situation and the short reign of the Muslim Brotherhood, in which it attempted to tighten its control over universities – notably by efforts to suppress discourse in the name of religion. The Muslim Brotherhood attempted to usurp students' unions and to limit and restrict anyone opposed to them, but at least members of the academic community were able to challenge such actions without such a strong risk of reprisal. In the academic year 2012/2013, independent student groups even won student union elections over the student wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

During the first-ever world conference for university presidents held at Columbia University in 2005, participants authored and published a document entitled “Declaring Academic Freedom” in which they stated that, “despite the presence of possible threats to academic freedom from a wide range of sources from inside and outside the academic community, it has been historically proven that the threat usually comes from states whose political power and organisational positions are most often diametrically opposed to the need of universities for institutional independence.”

Today, under the pretence of combatting terrorism, holding contrary opinions has become a crime, protesting has become a crime, and the people's constitutional right to free expression has been banned. We have many examples that clearly show Egypt has return to square one. In fact, it is possible for us to say that we have regressed even further with regard to the protection of university campuses from attacks, the general deterioration of the conditions of universities, and the suffocation of free expression in spaces that should be exemplary venues for discussion and debate.

The academic community in Egypt must be granted full independence to run its own affairs and to deal with future challenges, using methods that ensure the rights and freedoms of the university, without any state intervention. Such a change cannot take place without the implementation of a more democratic approach towards the public sphere in general, and respect for the law and constitution.

Emad Mubarak is the executive director of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), a Cairo-based organisation which advocates for the independence of Egypt's universities. AFTE is a member of the IFEX network.

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