Academic Freedom in Egypt goes on deterioration

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Walid Salem put his passport and plane ticket to Seattle in his bag, but he had a deep feeling that the authorities would prevent him from traveling from Cairo because of his academic research. His hunch turned out to be correct.

The Ph.D student in political science at the University of Washington had tried to travel in May last year to see his 13-year-old daughter. Still, then authorities confiscated his passport, and he was unable to board the plane.

Salem says after being prevented from traveling for the second time: “Last month I went, and I know I can go back (…) I had no certainty that I would be able to travel, but I was optimistic, and I told myself that I did nothing wrong, and therefore there is nothing cause for concern.” In May 2018, Salem was arrested, blindfolded, and handcuffed for five days, and the SSSP brought several charges against him, one of which was “joining a terrorist group.”

Salem is conducting field research on the judiciary’s role in settling political disputes in Egypt and Pakistan since the 1950s. He explains that during his interrogation at the State Security Prosecution: “I was asked about the details of my doctoral dissertation: Who is the supervisor? What are the chapter titles? Who did you interview? In short, they accused me that I say that the judiciary is politicized.”

Salem spent about six months in Tora prison in Cairo before being released in December 2018 with precautionary measures, requiring that he go to the police station twice a week. “I can’t understand the extreme cruelty of being prevented from seeing my daughter for more than three years for no reason,” he continues, “Nobody ever told me the reason behind all this.”

Salem was not the only case. In February 2020, Patrick George Zaki was arrested upon his arrival at Cairo airport on a short vacation from his postgraduate studies, which he is conducting at the University of Bologna in Italy to see his family. “I insisted on him to come because I miss him, he is my eldest son, and I have a strong relationship with him,” says Patrick’s mother, Hala Sobhi. “I only wanted to see him for a few days, but now I blame myself for being the reason for his coming.”

Patrick’s arrest revived the painful memories of the murder of an Italian doctoral student at the British University of Cambridge, Giulio Regeni, who was the subject of his research on trade unions in Egypt. Regeni was found dead in Cairo, eight days after his disappearance in the Egyptian capital on January 25, 2016. Last month, Rome referred to trial in absentia four senior Egyptian police officials accused of involvement in Regeni’s murder after Cairo refused to extradite them.

At the same time, thousands in Italy signed petitions demanding the release of Patrick Zaki, and the Senate decided to grant him Italian citizenship so that he could receive consular assistance in his imprisonment. Zaki is imprisoned on charges of “threatening national security” and “inciting the regime’s overthrow.” His detention was extended for 45 days this week. “When I imagine my son in prison, I feel like I’m suffocating (…) We thought he would be locked up for a few days or weeks at most, but it’s been more than a year now,” says Hala.

In a similar case, Ahmed Samir, a graduate student at Central European University in Vienna, came on vacation to visit his family and was arrested last February. He was accused of “spreading false news” and will appear in court again next week. Other young researchers residing in Egypt were also arrested and imprisoned, including Kholoud Amer, head of the translation unit at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and Shaimaa Sami, a researcher working with the Arab Network for Human Rights Information in Cairo. Manar El-Tantawi was denied her right to promote and head her department after defending her detained husband, the journalist Hesham Gaafar. Gaafar was released without any convection after three years of detention.

For his part, Elias Saliba, a researcher at the “Global Public Policy Center” in Berlin, believes that the academics entered Egypt in a “fragile situation.” “In a country where the security services seek to control public debate on political issues, academics who oppose the state’s official discourse quickly find themselves on the target list,” he says.

Under the police rule of Hosni Mubarak, the authorities restricted academic freedoms, but they have been greatly narrowed since the coup led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Egypt ranks low on the Academic Freedoms Index. Saliba, who participated in preparing this indicator, asserts that “a set of legal and organizational changes have been made to tighten political control, which has led to a deterioration in the freedom of teaching and research.”