Greater curbs on academic freedom in 2017 – Report

Egyptian authorities have tightened restrictions on university lecturers and students this year as part of an ongoing state-led crackdown that started more than three years ago, a report by a rights group has shown.

In its latest report, the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, or AFTE, highlights curbs by state authorities on academics’ overseas travels and students’ on-campus activities in violation of university independence.

Titled The Status of Freedom of Expression in Egypt, the report covers the first quarter of 2017.

As part of an increasing government control of academic institutions, teaching staff and officials at public universities and research centres are now required to obtain permission from the Foreign Affairs Ministry to travel abroad. The requirement was suggested by the Ministry of Higher Education, the report says.

In compliance, the state-run universities of Alexandria and Tanta have, since January, been sending applications from staff members planning to travel abroad to the Foreign Affairs Ministry for approval, AFTE reports.

Travel restrictions

“These procedures unlawfully impose new restrictions on travel of teaching staff members. They make the universities obliged to obtain approvals of both the ministries of foreign affairs and higher education before their teaching staff members can travel, in an infringement of university independence,” the Cairo-based group said.

At the same time, university lecturers continue to seek approval from security services for academic trips overseas.

In the period covered by the AFTE report, the Ministry of Higher Education granted itself the authority to nominate university officials and challenge nominations made by ad-hoc panels at universities, signalling further government intervention in academic affairs.

In 2014, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, an ex-army general, scrapped a long-fought-for but short-lived policy that allowed academics to elect leaders of public universities, replacing it with a system giving him the right to appoint leaders to top positions.

The AFTE report also cites a recommendation issued by a parliamentary committee on 27 March that the president of the provincial state Mansoura University be dismissed from his post for alleged administrative irregularities.

The recommendation was made despite the fact that the Egyptian parliament has no authority over universities.

The Supreme Council of Universities, which is in charge of academic policy in Egypt, refused the parliamentary recommendation and insisted on keeping the targeted university president in his post.

Pressure on social and political sciences

AFTE also cites “big pressure” placed by university administrators in Egypt on academic freedoms in teaching, research and general expression. Teachers, students and researchers majoring in social and political sciences in particular experienced “interventions and censorship” from security and governmental services, according to the rights group.

Many of the alleged violations were not documented because the affected academics did not report them “for fear of arbitrary penalties”.

The report also talks about purported hardships faced by foreign researchers in Egypt because of security agencies’ suspicions that their research poses a threat to national security.

Foreign students

According to AFTE, foreigners coming to Egypt to pursue education are still required to obtain approval from the security services before they can attend any university in the country.

Taking up the case of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni, whose mutilated body was found outside Cairo in February last year, the report notes that Egypt’s chief prosecutor agreed in January 2017 to a request from Rome to allow German company experts to retrieve and analyse data from surveillance cameras installed in a Cairo subway station frequented by the victim.

However, no new conclusions have since been made in the case that has strained ties between Italy and Egypt.

Noting a drop in documented violations of students’ rights in the first quarter of 2017, AFTE attributes this to tough curbs enforced on universities’ activities since the army’s 2013 overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi that was followed by violent protests on and outside campuses.

New financial regulations

Still, the report mentions cases of students expelled by their universities due to their political activism. Moreover, it refers to the controversial moves by higher education authorities to design new financial and administrative regulations for universities, a move seen as limiting student unions’ financial independence.

The report finds a correlation between the drafting of these regulations and a decision made by the Supreme Council of Universities in November 2016 postponing student elections until relevant rules are finalised.

According to AFTE, it seems that Egypt’s executive authority, represented by the Ministry of Higher Education, is worried that any new university elections could lead to a similar outcome as that experienced after the last polls held in 2015 when independent and opposition students won the most seats.