State killings, arrests and travel bans on scholars

Thousands of students and hundreds of scholars remain in prison in Egypt, many for peacefully exercising their right to free expression, according to a new report on violent attacks on higher education communities from Scholars at Risk or SAR.

Recent state actions include killings, arrests, and the increased imposition of travel restrictions – typically on the basis of purported security concerns – against both Egyptian and non-Egyptian scholars and students, SAR says.

According to SAR, one of the most widely reported incidents during the period – 1 May 2015 to 1 September 2016 – covered by its report Free to Think 2016, was the murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD candidate from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who was studying Egyptian labour movements at the American University in Cairo.

On 25 January 2016, the fifth anniversary of the uprising that led to the removal of president Hosni Mubarak, Regeni went missing. He was found dead more than a week later on the outskirts of Cairo, with his body showing signs of torture.

While state authorities claimed he was killed by a gang, Egyptian and international human rights organisations suggested he was targeted by state security forces because of his research, which had previously raised the suspicions of state security services.

According to the SAR report, arrests have also been used as warnings to foreign scholars whose research touches on sensitive issues. For example, on 1 July 2015, a French masters student, Fanny Ohier, was arrested and subsequently deported from Egypt, where she had been conducting research on the April 6 Youth Movement, a group banned by state authorities on accusations of spying and defaming the state.

SAR says Egypt’s Ministry of Higher Education has repeatedly used administrative measures to restrict scholars’ travel outside of the country. Universities have been required to subject staff to tough security examinations before permitting work-related travel and to require the return of scholars conducting contentious research abroad, the SAR report says.

In one instance in December last year, Cairo University told Kholoud Saber that the university’s approval of her doctoral research sabbatical at the University of Leuven, Belgium, had been revoked after the Ministry of Higher Education’s General Administration of Surveying and Information denired her security clearance.

She was then ordered to return to Egypt from Belgium or lose her position as an associate lecturer at Cairo University. A leading advocate for women’s rights and academic freedom, Saber managed to ensure her sabbatical was reinstated this February after filing a lawsuit challenging the order, which attracted media attention, the report says.

The report cites cases of scholars being sanctioned for academic conduct abroad. One scholar was warned not to attend a workshop in Germany on Deconstructing Islamist Egypt and was later charged with “joining and supporting a terrorist organisation” and“spreading false news liable to disturb public security and harm public interest”.

The scholar, Ismail Alexandrani, a critic of human rights violations in Egypt and of counter-terrorism policy in the Sinai Peninsula, remains in pre-trial detention.

In other incidents foreign scholars have been blocked from sharing their research in Egypt or even banned for life. For instance, in January this year Dr Amel Grami, a Tunisian scholar, was detained and interrogated for 14 hours on arriving to make a presentation on research methods in the study of terrorism and extremism at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and was forced to return to her country.

Further tightening of control

The SAR report concludes that the current restrictions on academics and their work suggest a “further tightening of control, and loss of autonomy and freedom in Egyptian higher education, as well as a shrinking space for critical inquiry and discourse in Egypt generally”.

It says the Egyptian authorities must “reverse course” and reaffirm their commitment to academic freedom and institutional autonomy in Egypt as provided for in the constitution.

“Furthermore, they must release from detention or otherwise restore the status of scholars, students and others who did not engage in violent acts and whose only offence was the peaceful exercise of critical inquiry and expression.”

It adds that higher education authorities should reaffirm their commitment to these values while working to mitigate wherever possible the damage caused by the ongoing detentions, prosecutions, and administrative and travel restrictions.

“Such reaffirmation should include, for example, formally challenging denials of security clearance, travel permissions, and entry or exit based on a scholar’s research, teaching, publication or public expressions,” the SAR report says.