In a letter released today, Human Rights Watch's Academic Freedom Committee condemned Egypt's ongoing closure of a leading democratization think tank.
"Egypt should immediately reopen the Center," said Hanny Megally, the executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division. "This type of harassment is intended to deter other academics from pursuing research and will hurt the free exchange of ideas crucial to a healthy society in advance of an important electoral period."
Although authorities have failed to specify any exact charges against them, several researchers from the Center have remained in custody for over a month. The Academic Freedom Committee urged Egypt's Prime Minister, Dr. Atef Ebeid, "to state its commitment to protecting and promoting academic freedom in Egypt by either immediately reopening the Ibn Khaldun Center and releasing its staff and associates, or by promptly affording them the opportunity to defend themselves against formal charges in a court of law."
The Committee expressed its concern that the Center's closure indicates increasingly strict limits on academic freedom in Egypt in anticipation of the upcoming parliamentary elections. Further, the researchers' detention comes on the heels of another recent incident in which the Egyptian government imposed administrative sanctions on thirty-six school teachers who attended workshops on civil education.
The full text of the Academic Freedom Committee's letter to Dr. Ebeid is below.
Prime Minister Dr. Atef Mohamed Ebeid
Office of the Prime Minister
Maglis al-Sha'ab Street
We write this open letter on behalf of the Academic Freedom Committee of Human Rights Watch to protest the ongoing detention of Prof. Saad El-Din Ibrahim and other staff members and researchers of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies ("the Center"), and to urge their immediate release and the reopening of the Center.
Although the authorities have failed to specify the exact charges against them, Prof. Ibrahim and several of his colleagues have remained in custody for nearly a month. Indeed, the State Security Prosecution recently extended their detention for another fifteen-day period. We are particularly alarmed by reports that Ms. Nadia Abd al-Nour, the Center's financial director, was subjected to an intimidating interrogation session during which she was removed from her cell at the women's section of al-Qanater prison and transferred late at night to the men's cell block where security forces questioned her in violation of proper judicial process. The Center itself remains closed and its files and computers have been confiscated by security personnel. We believe that the Center's continued closure and the violations of due process for its staff will severely harm the environment for independent research and academic freedom in Egypt.
The persecution of Dr. Ibrahim and his colleagues seems to stem from the Center's role as a monitor of the upcoming parliamentary elections. The Center is internationally renowned for the study of applied social sciences in Egypt and the Arab world and publishes Civil Society, a monthly newsletter that is an important source of information and analysis for scholars. Dr. Ibrahim is widely known for his work on democratization as the chair of the Sociology Department at the American University in Cairo and as a former Secretary General of the Arab Organization for Human Rights and the Arab Thought Forum. At least three other detainees also seem to have been targeted for their research activity: Mr. Khaled Fayyad, the Center's coordinator for political education and electoral rights, and Mr. Ayman Jabal and Mr. Usama Hammed, researchers. None have been formally charged with any crimes.
Given the lack of any formal charges against the staff and associates of the Center, their prolonged detention appears to be an attempt to deter the Center from its academic mission of studying democratic reform and the strengthening of civil society. Our concern for the Center's closure is heightened because it follows a marked worsening of the situation of educators and academics in Egypt. We earlier stated our concerns in this regard to you in our letter of May 9 about the imposition of administrative sanctions on several teachers who had participated in training sessions on civic education and democratization. As we stated in that letter, there can be no meaningful citizenship and democracy without the ability of individuals to seek and impart information and ideas about their own society. Independent academic activity, such as that undertaken by the Ibn Khaldun Center, is crucial for fostering this ability.
When Egypt acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on January 14, 1982, it made a commitment to guarantee all individuals the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds." The closure of the Center and the ongoing detention of its staff violate this fundamental right. Furthermore, the ongoing imprisonment of Prof. Ibrahim, Ms. Abd al-Nour, Mr. Fayyad, Mr. Jabal, Mr. Hammed and the other staff and associates of the Ibn Khaldun Center violates their right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. Their harassment will likely deter other academics from freely pursuing their research for fear of suffering the same treatment.
A vibrant civil society and the free exchange of views and ideas are essential for any healthy society and especially for a country preparing to enter an important electoral period. Therefore we respectfully urge your government to state its commitment to protecting and promoting academic freedom in Egypt by either immediately reopening the Ibn Khaldun Center and releasing its staff and associates, or by promptly affording them the opportunity to defend themselves against formal charges in a court of law.
Thank you for your consideration of this urgent and important matter. We look forward to your reply.
Executive Director, Middle East North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch
Director, Academic Freedom Program, Human Rights Watch
cc: Minister of Justice Counsellor Farouk Seif El Nasr
Ambassador to the U.S. Nabil Fahmy