The Egyptian government stifles academic freedom in universities by censoring course books, outlawing research about controversial issues and intimidating student activists, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The authorities also fail to protect citizens from Islamist militants who publicly attack professors and students.
“The government’s persistent violations of academic freedom have badly undermined Egypt’s standing as the educational leader of the Arab world,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should end their excessive and arbitrary interference in the activities of scholars, students and universities.”
The 107-page report, “Reading between the ‘Red Lines’: The Repression of Academic Freedom in Egyptian Universities,” details ongoing government restrictions on classroom discussions, research projects, student activities, campus demonstrations and university governance. The report addresses conditions in public institutions including Cairo, Alexandria, `Ain Shams, and Hilwan Universities, and private institutions like the American University in Cairo.
Human Rights Watch documented how this pervasive repression has led to an environment of self-censorship. Academics report that there are numerous “red lines”—notably subjects that touch on politics, religion, and sex—that they do not feel free to discuss publicly.
“State security forces detain and sometimes abuse activists who run for student union offices or demonstrate on campus,” Stork said. “State-appointed deans interfere with class discussions and the selection of research topics.”
The report also relays how national laws impinge on campus affairs. Law No. 20/1936 requires that all imported printed material, including course books, be reviewed by the censor’s office. This statute has blocked teaching of classic literature dealing with sexual topics and has had a chilling effect on textbook orders.
Human Rights Watch said that university self-governance is a prerequisite for the ability of professors and students to exercise their individual rights.
“One key role of a university is to provide a forum for high-level debate on controversial topics,” Stork said. “Universities need to be free of control by state security forces in order to do that.”
Stork pointed out that the government has targeted Islamist students with arbitrary arrest, long periods of detention, and harsh punishments for peaceful expression of political views.
At the same time, as the report explains in detail, Islamist militants intimidate professors and students in many areas of campus life, further compounding the problems of academic repression. For example, these militants have verbally, legally and physically attacked academics to deter them from researching controversial religious or moral topics. The state’s failure to protect academic freedom from Islamist militants adds to the list of violations discussed above.
One case documented in the report concerns Mahmud, a student at Cairo University’s Dar al-`Ulum faculty. After he complained that police blocked Islamist students from voting in the student union elections, he was arrested, blindfolded and tortured for two days. In another case, the Cairo University administration punished professor Sayyed al-Bahrawy for his leftist political activities by prohibiting him from advising students or supervising student clubs.
Reading between the “Red Lines”: The Repression of Academic Freedom in Egyptian Universities will be available at: