In his speech at the American University in Cairo (AUC) on January 10, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted the inherent connection between academic freedom and economic development. He called on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to “unleash the creative energy of Egypt’s people, unfetter the economy, and promote a free and open exchange of ideas.” Yet even as he spoke, the government of Egypt was curtailing the free exchange of ideas through unprecedented levels of censorship, surveillance, and repression of academic freedom.
The Sisi regime’s crackdown on academic research adds to the practical challenges of building a strong education sector. Even as the government seeks to revive the nation’s historic role as a regional leader in innovation and research production, without academic freedom this goal is doomed to fail.
Egypt’s Vision 2030, presented in February 2016, aims to increase Egypt’s global rankings in competitiveness, transparency and the ease of doing business. Integral to these broad goals is the expansion of knowledge, innovation, and scientific research. As such, the vision sets a goal of improving Egypt’s ranking in the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Global Innovation Index from 99 out of 143 in 2014 to 60 by 2030. This includes improving its ranking on the knowledge diffusion sub-index from 69 to 30 and on the knowledge creation index from 71 to 30. To improve the quality of higher education and make room for an anticipated 300,000 additional university students by 2020 and 980,000 by 2030, Egypt needs to attract foreign universities to establish branch campuses. This has prompted the Egyptian parliament to approve a new law streamlining the administrative process to allow for the faster establishment of international branch campuses.
In 2017, the Egyptian Ambassador to Great Britain, Nasser Ahmed Kamel, approached the University of Liverpool about the possibility of establishing a campus in Egypt. Given the potential to generate significant tuition revenue, the University of Liverpool seriously considered the offer. After a preliminary analysis, however, the university found that the risks involved, including what its international development committee described as possible “reputational damage,” outweighed any financial benefits. “Reputational damage” was a reference to Egypt’s worsening human rights record, which includes arrests, arbitrary detentions, defamation (including of academics), and even death sentences and murder. The result is a chilling political climate not conducive to learning, much less innovative research.
The University of Liverpool’s decision also underscores a troubling trend plaguing Egypt’s public and private universities—the loss of academic freedom. Cases such as that of Walid al-Shobaky, released on December 1 after six months in prison, has once again turned the spotlight on the erosion of academic freedom. Shobaky, a PhD student at the University of Washington, had been conducting fieldwork in Cairo for his dissertation on judicial independence when security forces abducted him in late May. He was among a list of thirteen journalists, academics, and civil society activists accused of spreading false news and sharing information with “unauthorized parties” pursuant to Egypt’s draconian counterterrorism law. Nearly three years after the brutal murder of Giulio Regeni, another doctoral student conducting dissertation fieldwork in Cairo, Egypt continues to repress intellectual life for both faculty and students.
These levels of repression exceed any seen prior to Sisi’s ascendency. Under Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, as Egypt’s government became increasingly authoritarian, public universities fell under the tight control of the executive branch. This changed slightly in post-revolutionary Egypt. In 2012, per popular demands for more freedom, President Mohamed Morsi allowed faculty to elect their own deans and presidents. This post-revolutionary boost for academic autonomy and freedom was an important first step in moving universities away from being surrogates of an authoritarian regime into independent centers of research and learning.
However, the change was short-lived. In 2014, Sisi issued a decree reversing course. The president of Egypt again appoints every university president and dean at every Egyptian public university. In 2015, a presidential decree broadened the basis for firing tenured faculty to include any political activism on campus as well as vague ethics violations. The following year, Sisi issued a decree authorizing the intelligence services to regulate public universities and their faculty’s intellectual life. As a result, state intelligence services must now approve faculty’s requests to present at conferences outside of Egypt. The intelligence services must also approve public universities’ invitations to foreign lecturers and any new courses.
In the executive’s latest move to control universities, the head of Alexandria University’s Council for Postgraduate Studies and Research announced in November 2018 that all PhD and MA thesis proposals must conform to Egypt’s Vision 2030. Yet the state’s decision to control public universities and the topics students are allowed to study restrain the creativity and critical thinking skills Egyptian students need to develop for Egypt to meet the goals of Vision 2030.
This tight control, including the overt and covert presence of intelligence officers, has not only quashed intellectual life, it has deprived students of their liberty. Between 2013 and 2016, over 1100 students were arrested, 1000 were expelled or subjected to disciplinary actions, 65 were tried by military courts, and 21 students were extrajudicially killed.
Private universities have fared no better. Although historically shielded from government interference, private universities are facing pressure to quash research that could trigger the regime’s ire. AUC is a case in point. In contrast to public universities, the government of Egypt has no authority to select senior administrative positions at AUC or assign intelligence officers to surveil its campus. Instead, pro-regime forces find other ways of targeting faculty members whose research is deemed threatening to the government.
In 2015, Professor Emad Shahin was sentenced to death in absentia on fabricated charges in a mass trial—most likely because of his publications on the military government’s human rights violations. Others have been barred from leaving Egypt on politicized charges or demonized in the state-controlled media for their research.
In short, authoritarianism is crippling the nation’s universities—with serious implications for economic development. Meeting the goals laid out in Vision 2030 and attracting international branch campuses will require some degree of academic freedom, which is not present today. Until then, Vision 2030 will remain a vision detached from reality.
Amy Austin Holmes is a visiting scholar at Harvard University, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, and an associate professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. Sahar Aziz is a professor and Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar at Rutgers Law School and the founding director of the Rutgers Center for Security, Race and Rights. Follow them on Twitter @AmyAustinHolmes and @saharazizlaw.