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I. Summary

Recent studies of the Arab world have turned a spotlight on the poor state of its university education. In 2003, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Arab Human Development Report focused on education in the region. The report concludes, “Knowledge in Arab countries today appears to be on the retreat. . . . Continuing with this historic slide is an untenable course if the Arab people are to have a dignified, purposeful and productive existence in the third millennium.”1 One important reason for this decline is the lack of academic freedom on university campuses.

Conditions at universities in Egypt, historically a leader in education in the Arab world, exemplify the problem. On a mission to Egypt, Human Rights Watch found that academic freedom violations pervade the country’s system of higher education. Since the early 1990s, Egyptian academics have faced public condemnation, judicial convictions, physical violence, and other forms of intimidation from both government officials and private groups and individuals, particularly Islamist militants. Among the most publicized cases is that of Cairo University professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, who had to flee the country after being declared an apostate by a national court for his scholarship on the Quran. American University in Cairo (AUC) professor Samia Mehrez had a course book with sexual content censored and suffered attacks in the press and parliament. And Saadeddin Ibrahim, an AUC sociologist who had conducted research projects on controversial political and religious subjects for an independent research center, endured three years of trials and prison time before being acquitted. Although some of these events date back several years, they remain vivid in the minds of Egyptian academics.

The assault on academic freedom is more subtle, but more extensive than the headline cases indicate. Repression by government authorities and private groups has affected every major component of university life, including the classroom, research, student activities, and campus protests. Censorship stops professors from teaching certain books. Permit requirements for surveys block research in the social sciences. University officials and police limit student activities outside the classroom. State security forces often respond violently to campus demonstrations. Such widespread abuses stifle debate and the free exchange of information, thus preventing Egyptian students from receiving a quality education and Egyptian scholars from advancing knowledge in their fields.

State and non-state actors alike contribute to the poor state of academic freedom in Egypt. State security forces illegally detain and sometimes torture activist students who run for student union or who demonstrate on campus. The government applies additional pressure through appointed deans and restrictive laws. Most of the non-state interference comes from Islamist militants, whose political activism is religiously driven. This group intimidates professors and students through a variety of tactics, including litigation and physical assaults. One professor accused Islamist militants of creating an “atmosphere of terror” in which scholars worry their lectures or research will be condemned as blasphemous. In some cases, these sources of repression feed on each other. Academics appease Islamists because they fear increased state repression and accept state repression because they fear the wrath of Islamists.

Years of repression have created an environment of self-censorship in Egyptian universities. Professors and students acknowledge that there are certain subjects—chiefly politics, religion, and sex—that they will only discuss in a limited way. They say they feel free to say whatever they want, but only provided they do not cross one of the taboo “red lines.” Self-censorship can be as damaging to higher education as direct repression. It is also a sign that many Egyptian academics no longer resist, or sometimes even recognize, violations of academic freedom.

Institutional restrictions have exacerbated the academic freedom violations on national campuses, contributing to the deterioration of quality education in Egypt. The state controls faculty appointments and promotions, infringing on university autonomy. A rigid approach to learning discourages creativity throughout the university system from entrance exams to Ph.D. programs and deprives students of the power to choose freely their academic pursuits. Inadequate funding has caused professors to seek alternative places of employment and led to decrepit facilities. The Ministry of Higher Education has developed a plan for future reform, but it is too soon to determine if the government has the money and the will to implement it.

The pervasive violations by state and non-state actors and fearful responses by academics have created a stagnant educational environment. Professors and students repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that Egypt’s universities are no longer centers of creative thinking. Higher education has become largely rote, and people take the safe path. “It’s an unexciting environment. It is not stimulating on a daily basis. . . . Most free spirits are seething with frustration,” said Ann Radwan, executive director of the Binational Fulbright Commission in Cairo and long-time observer of Egyptian academia. “Fear leads people to think it’s better to have continuity, to keep things quiet.”2 The general sense of apathy not only interferes with the quality of education but also affects society at large. Universities should serve as the training ground for a country’s leaders as well as a forum for discussing solutions to its problems. In the present atmosphere, they fail to do both.

This report presents the findings of a three-week research mission to Egypt from February 12 to March 5, 2003, supplemented by telephone interviews and archival research from 2003 to 2005.3 Human Rights Watch interviewed twenty-seven professors and sixteen students from Cairo and Alexandria and had access to published accounts summarizing the experiences of many others. It also met with Egyptian government officials, including the minister of higher education and a state censor, and about two dozen lawyers, journalists, NGO representatives, and foreign diplomats who have worked on academic freedom issues. In addition, Human Rights Watch reviewed international and Egyptian laws and university histories. Research focused on Cairo University and the AUC, Egypt’s oldest and most prestigious public and private universities, respectively. It also involved interviews with people from `Ain Shams, Alexandria, and Hilwan universities. This scope covers the most famous and highly regarded academic institutions in the country.

Since the Human Rights Watch mission in 2003, Egyptian professors and researchers have taken some steps toward promoting academic freedom. In fall 2003, a group of professors established the Ninth of March Committee for the Independence of Universities. The committee is named for the date in 1932 on which Rector Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayyid of Cairo University resigned to protest the government-ordered dismissal of renowned professor Taha Hussain. The committee has raised awareness of the lack of academic freedom at annual events on March 9 and has sent letters to the university administration to protest interferences by the security police in education.4 More recently, the Egyptian Association for Support of Democracy published a report on the October 2004 student elections in four universities, and Cairo University historian Raouf Abbas published an autobiography that includes anecdotes about government interference in university life.5 Such actions represent important initiatives by members of the academic community on behalf of academic freedom.

Professors and students protest just outside the gates of Cairo University on February 22, 2003. 
The university’s domed Great Festival Hall can be seen in the background.
© 2003 Bonnie Docherty / Human Rights Watch

In addition to illuminating the troublesome state of Egyptian academia, this Human Rights Watch report explains how the restrictions on academic freedom violate international law. The principle of academic freedom derives in part from the internationally recognized right to education, which is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Egypt has ratified. According to the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR), “the right to education can only be enjoyed if accompanied by the academic freedom of staff and students.” Academic freedom encompasses both rights for individual members of the university community, such as freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly, and autonomy for institutions, which must be free from state interference with the university’s educational mission.

In its pervasive repression of academic freedom, Egypt violates international law. The government stifles people seeking to participate, as individuals or groups, in all aspects of academic life. It maintains police, administrative, and legal control over the universities, depriving them of institutional autonomy. Egypt should move to correct these violations and infringements through legal and administrative means. It should also prevent attacks on academic freedom by private individuals or groups.

The international community, meanwhile, should recognize the systemic problems with higher education in Egypt and find constructive avenues to press for change. While some of the most egregious cases already have attracted outside attention, foreign governments and media have not always acknowledged the seriousness and pervasiveness of academic freedom violations in Egypt. In its 2002 Human Rights Report, the U.S. Department of State, for example, condemned the prosecution of Saadeddin Ibrahim and its “deterrent effect” on freedom of expression. It stated incorrectly, however, “The Government did not restrict directly academic freedom at universities.”6 The 9/11 Commission Report recommends that the United States spend money to “rebuild scholarship, exchange, and library programs” and to buy textbooks in the Arab world.7 While financial assistance for resources, technology, and facilities could help remedy existing deficiencies, such funds will be wasted if the restrictions on academic freedom detailed below are not addressed. Large donors to Egypt, such as the United States and the World Bank, should better familiarize themselves with the academic freedom violations in that country and use their leverage to help end them.

[1] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Arab Human Development Report 2003: Building a Knowledge Society (New York: UNDP, 2003), p. 163.

[2] Human Rights Watch interview with Ann Radwan, executive director, Binational Fulbright Commission, Cairo, February 20, 2003. This report uses the actual names of interviewees unless a name is withheld to protect someone. In that case, the person is identified by their status (such as professor or student at a particular university).

[3] Human Rights Watch has criticized the academic freedom situation in a number of countries, including Afghanistan, China, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, and Turkey.

[4] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Laila Souief, member, Ninth of March Committee, Cairo, February 15, 2005.

[5] Raouf Abbas, Meshaynaha Khotan (The Path We Trod) (Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal, 2004).

[6] The State Department went on to say, “However, deans were government-appointed rather than elected by the faculty. The Government justified the measure as a means to combat Islamist influence on campus. The Government also occasionally banned books for use on campuses, although no such cases occurred during the year.” U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2002, March 31, 2003, (retrieved May 27, 2004). Its 2003 and 2004 reports do not discuss the deterrent effect of the Ibrahim case but make the same assessment of academic freedom. U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2003, February 25, 2004, (retrieved May 27, 2004); U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2004, February 28, 2005, (retrieved March 31, 2005).

[7] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004), pp. 377-78.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>June 2005