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Since the military-backed overthrow of Mohamed Morsi’s government last summer, censorship of journalism in post-revolutionary Egypt has become an urgent concern of human rights and freedom of expression organisations. A quieter and more gradual undercurrent to the question of censorship, however, has been the continued corrosion of academic freedom of expression in post-revolutionary Egypt.
Under Hosni Mubarak’s regime, academic freedom within Egypt was notoriously limited, not least by the fact that since 1994, deans and presidents of public universities were appointed by the state, and professional career progress in academia frequently depended on compliance with the state line. Political activism was prohibited on campus and police units were stationed inside universities to “maintain order”. However, the dramatic increase of Egyptians in higher education in the last fifteen years of the Mubarak era – without the improvement of either higher education facilities or graduate employment prospects – is widely held to have been a central factor in the popular uprising that overthrew the regime in 2011.
Activist academics played a pivotal role in the 2011 revolution. In particular, the March 9 movement, founded in 2004, acted as a complement to the more clandestine student activist April 6 movement, and was comprised of politicised professors and academic administrators who were focused on protesting the impingement of academic life by the state.
As such, the post-Mubarak era was heralded by many as new “window“ for academic freedom in Egypt and “an opportunity to revive the Egyptian universities’ founding ideals as autonomous institutions seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” Like freedom of the press, however, none of the “stages” of the post-revolutionary period have allowed this to come to fruition. Under the immediate, post-revolutionary, interim SCAF period, and under Morsi’s short-lived presidency, university reform was never substantively addressed, whilst activism on campuses splintered along the increasingly polarised lines of post-revolutionary political discourse. Moreover, many of the student activists of the 2011 uprisings were concerned at the possibility of Islamist encroachment on academic freedom of expression, and the policing of secular and female students’ activities at universities.
Since the military-backed removal of Morsi in summer 2013, and the mass violence that accompanied it, academic freedom has been further corroded both by the discourse and strategies of the new ruling powers on the one hand, and by the return of university premises as physical sites of political violence. The return of state security to campuses has been met with resistance from student activists and those who see it as a return to Mubarak-era surveillance of the university space. This has, however, been framed as a necessary step to prevent further violence as that witnessed since late 2013, which saw intense clashes at Al-Azhar University and an engineering student shot dead on the Cairo University campus.
Alongside the physical space of the university, the discipline of academic practice has been significantly impinged by the increasingly fractious and polarised political situation. Like journalists, academics have been caught in the political cross-fire of the post-July 2013 government’s campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, who the government declared a terrorist organisation in December. Over the summer, two Canadian academics were detained for nearly two months despite no independent proof that they had engaged with the Muslim Brotherhood or taken part in “terrorist activities”.
As Ursula Lindsey has noted in The New York Times, political scientists working on the subject of contemporary Egyptian politics have faced particular difficulties. The 2011 revolution is itself now the subject of academic study, yet its protracted aftermath impedes research, and academics such as Nathan J Brown, a leading scholar on Egypt’s constitutions and judiciary, have noted that foreign academics are now cautious against travelling to Egypt for research. The military-backed government that overthrew Morsi has engaged in both a physical clampdown and a war of narratives with the Muslim Brotherhood, quick to frame all association with the Islamist organisation as collusion.
This presents particular problems for academics who wish to conduct interviews for the purpose of academic research. After all, this time last year, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed regime was the official government, and, as such, academic researchers would likely have had contact with the group — not out of political allegiance but in order to conduct their studies. Yet such “contact” can now find scholars isolated, silenced, or even accused of “espionage”, as in the case of Professor Eman el-Din Shahin. Professor Shahin’s colleagues have spoken out in his defence, arguing that he is a well-respected and thorough researcher whose contact with political enemies of the new regime would have been in his legitimate capacity as a researcher. Such a climate is naturally conducive to self-censorship on the part of other academics, a loss for all of us who wish to understand and engage with contemporary Egypt. As an academic, you may not be politicised, but the state is very interested in politicising you.
The March 9 movement, formed in the Mubarak era by scholars seeking freedom of academic expression, marked its anniversary last month in sombre circumstances — these new challenges for academic freedoms overlay the continuing, unresolved issues of the pre-2011 period, from workplace nepotism to underfunding in public education. The uprisings of 2011 were ignited in part by the March 9 movement’s campaign for academic freedom of expression, yet in the various incarnations of the post-revolutionary order, this dream is still far from being realised.
A Cairo misdemeanour court on Monday sentenced three men to eight years in prison “for committing homosexual acts”. A fourth defendant in the case was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour.
The men were allegedly found dressed in women’s clothes and wearing make-up when they were arrested last month, following a police raid on a private apartment in Cairo’s northern residential suburb of Nasr city. The apartment had been a meeting place for some members of Egypt’s gay community, who had been attending a party there when the raid occurred.
During Monday’s court session, prosecutors said one of the defendants had rented the apartment to receive “sexual deviants” in his home and host parties for them. While there are no laws banning homosexuality in Egypt, “debauchery” or breaking the country’s law of public morals is outlawed. Egyptian courts use legislation on debauchery to prosecute gay people on charges of “contempt of religion” and “sexual immorality”.
The severe sentences the four men received on Monday have raised concerns among rights campaigners of a widening crackdown on Egypt’s long-oppressed and marginalised gay community. Youth-activists expressed their dismay and disappointment at the verdicts on social media networks. In a message posted on her Twitter account on Tuesday, Shadi Rahimi, a journalist and photographer working for Al Monitor described the verdicts as “outrageous”. Blogger Nervana Mahmoud meanwhile said: “The verdicts demonstrate that the current regime is as conservative as their Islamist predecessors.”
In Egypt’s conservative, predominantly Muslim society, homophobia is deeply embedded, with 95% of Egyptians sharing the conviction that “homosexuality should not be accepted”, according to a 2013 poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre.
The recent crackdown on Egypt’s gay community is highly reminiscent of the security clampdown in the spring/summer of 2001 when authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak was still in power. In May 2001, 52 people suspected of being gay were arrested on charges of immorality during a raid on a tourist boat moored on the Nile in Cairo. Twenty three of the men were sentenced to up to five years in prison with hard labour. The highly-publicised “Queen Boat case”, named after the discotheque-boat that for long had been a known meeting place for Egypt’s gay community, signalled what rights campaigners feared might be an end to long years of discreet and quietly tolerated public activity by the country’s threatened LGBT population. Some analysts said at the time that the sudden crackdown was a means of diverting attention away from the regime’s failures, including a political crisis and a looming economic recession. Critics of the 2001 crackdown also believed it was an attempt by the then-autocratic regime to present an image as “the guardian of public virtue so as to deflate an Islamist opposition movement that appeared to be gaining support every day”.
Not surprisingly, many of Egypt’s gay men and women were at the heart of the January 2011 protests demanding democracy, freedom and social justice. They had hoped that the revolution would usher in a new era of change including greater freedoms and tolerance, allowing them to better integrate into mainstream society. Karim, who requested that only his first name be used out of concern for his safety, told Index: “We had a lot of hope then but the last three years have only brought disappointment. There has been no change in people’s attitudes. In fact, we get insulted more often now, as people feel emboldened knowing that the authorities are siding with them.”
Rights campaigners agree that life has gotten worse for Egypt’s gay citizens since the Arab Spring. Adel Ramadan, a legal officer at the Cairo-based Egypt Initiative for Personal Rights told NBC News last year that “after the fall of Mubarak, the criticism of revolutionary groups has always contained a sexual element. Women who participate in protests are often called prostitutes or ‘loose’ women, while male revolutionary activists are called homosexuals”.
Meanwhile, the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt in the post-revolution era fuelled fears among rights groups and Egyptian gay citizens over greater restrictions on the gay community. They anticipated an even harder crackdown under Islamist rule and worried that the Islamist-dominated parliament would pass anti-gay legislation. Whether or not their fears were justified is uncertain, for Islamist rule in Egypt was short lived, lasting only one year. President Morsi was toppled by military-backed protests on July 3, 2013 and the People’s Assembly (the lower house of Parliament responsible for issuing legislation) was disbanded by a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling in June 2012, only a few months after its members were elected. However, in their time in power, there were signs indicating a potential tightening of restrictions on Egypt’s gays. In August 2012, a man was arrested for allegedly leading a “gay sex network” while later that year, vigilantes beat four men suspected of being gay before handing them over to the police.
“Many of my gay friends fled the country when the Islamists came to power; they were terrified of what would happen to them under Islamist rule. They knew they would not be able to live freely so they emigrated,” said Karim. “Those who stayed behind, participated in the 30 June mass protests demanding Morsi’s downfall. We were overjoyed when he was toppled and hoped there would be fewer restrictions on us from then on,” he added.
Paradoxically, since Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, there has been a rise in the number of arrests of people based on their sexual orientation, according to the US-based Human Rights First group. The group says the surge in arrests and prosecution of gay men and women is part of the military-backed regime’s efforts to reassure Egyptians that the current regime is as conservative as any Islamist party.
In October 2013, state-owned Akhbar el Youm reported that at least 14 men were arrested for “practicing homosexuality” after a raid on a health club in El Marg district in northeastern Cairo. According to the weekly newspaper, police found the men “in positions that were against religious precepts”. Less than three weeks later, police arrested ten more people on “homosexual-related charges”. The arrests occurred during a police raid on a private party held to celebrate Love Day (Egypt’s equivalent of Valentine’s Day) in Cairo’s western suburb of 6 October. The men were subjected to humiliating anal examinations before being convicted of prostitution and sentenced to between three and nine years in prison. Mohamed Bakier, one of the defence lawyers in the case, said the charges against them were “political rather than criminal”. He added that the harsh sentences they received were meant to deliver a message that the society is still conservative.
Similarly, the severe sentences handed down to the four men on Monday may be an attempt by the military-backed authorities to appease a sceptical public and win over conservatives in the deeply polarised society ahead of upcoming presidential elections in which the former defence minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi is the lead contender.
The verdicts, meanwhile, coincided with another court ruling upholding three-year jail terms imposed on three secular revolutionary activists convicted of organising or participating in unauthorised protests, prompting rights campaigners to concur in opinion that this is all part of the wider, ongoing crackdown on personal freedoms.
Whatever the motives are behind the harsh sentences, one thing is certain: The verdicts have increased anxiety over the insecurity of Egypt’s vulnerable gay community. “We no longer feel safe,” said Karim. “We know we are being targeted by the police and sooner or later, they will come after us.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 52 Egyptians were arrested in May 2010. The incident took place in May 2001.
The release of the annual Freedom on the Net report for the first time includes a chapter on Sudan, authored by Index Award nominees GIRIFNA. This is more than timely, as the country is witnessing a new wave of widespread protests triggered by the Sudanese government’s announcement in late September 2013 that it will lift economic subsidies from fuel and other essential food items.
Based on a survey of 60 countries in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2013, Sudan is categorised as “Not Free” with a score of 63, placing it among the bottom 14 countries in the category. As one of ten sub-Saharan African countries surveyed, Sudan joined Ethiopia as the two “Not Free” countries in the region. Kenya and South Africa were categorised as “Free” and the remaining six – Angola, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe – as “Partly Free”.
Sudan has invested heavily in its telecommunications infrastructure in the last decade, resulting in a steadily increasing internet penetration rate of 21 percent and a mobile penetration rate of 60 percent by the end of 2012, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). It also boasts the cheapest post-paid costs in the Middle East and North Africa in 2012, and healthy market competition amongst four telecommunications providers.
However, these infrastructural and economical advantages are highly reduced against the backdrop of a State that has little respect for freedom of expression, freedom of association, participation and peaceful assembly. The Sudanese regime is amongst the worst globally in terms its obstruction of the access to independent and diverse information both offline and online. A global study on press freedom conducted by Reporters without Borders earlier this year ranks Sudan at 170 out of 179 countries surveyed. This clearly reflects that the violations of freedom of expression impacting the traditional print media are also starting to reflect online.
The Sudan Revolts, the wave of protests triggered by economic austerity plans that hit the country between June and July 2012, was the first time the authorities implemented a large-scale crackdown and detentions of citizens using digital platforms to communicate, connect, coordinate and mobilise. Additionally, the government increased its deployment of a Cyber Jihadist Unit to monitor and hack into Facebook and email accounts of activists. The National Telecommunications Corporation (a government agency) also engages in the censoring and blocking of opposition online news forums and outlets. YouTube, for example, was blocked for two months in late 2012 in response to the “Innocence of Muslims” video.
The attacks on cyber dissidents during Sudan Revolts included the detention of digital activists, such as Usamah Mohammed, for up to two months, the forced exile of Sudan’s most prominent video blogger Nagla’a Sid Ahmad, and the kidnapping and torture of the Darfurian online journalist Somia Hundosa. Moreover, one of the most high profile political detainees from the Nuba Mountains, Jalila Khamis, spent nine months in detention without charges. When she was finally brought to trial in December 2012, the main evidence against her was a YouTube video taken by Sid Ahmad, in which Khamis testified about the shelling of civilians in the Nuba Mountains by the government.
Since September 23 this year, authorities have responded to the new wave of protests with unprecedented violence toward peacefully protesting urban dwellers. More than 200 have been killed in Khartoum and Wad Madani by live bullets fired by riot police, national security agents, and/or state sponsored militias. According to a government statement, 600 citizens have been detained, though activists say that number is much higher. On Wednesday, September 25, the government shut down internet access for 24 hours. When the internet returned, it was much slower, with Facebook inaccessible on mobile phones and YouTube blocked or non-functional due to a very slow broadband connection.
The US sanctions imposed on Omer El Bashir’s regime since 1997 also continue to hinder the free access to the internet and the free flow of information as it limits access to a number of new media tools. This includes limited access to anti virus suites, e-document readers, and rich content multimedia applications that most Sudanese citizens cannot download. The inability to download software security updates makes many users in Sudan vulnerable to malware. Smart phone applications cannot be downloaded or purchased from the iTunes and/or Android stores.
Additionally, Sudan has a combination of restrictive laws that work together to impede freedom of expression both off and online, including the 2009 Printed Press Materials Law, and a new Media law that has recently appeared in Parliament, which officials have hinted would for the first include language restricting online content. Additionally, the National Security Act (2010) gives National Intelligence and Security Services the permission to arrest journalists and censor newspapers under the pretext of “national security,”. An IT Crime Law, in effect since 2007 criminalises websites that criticise the government or publishes defamatory materials. All these laws contradict Sudan’s National Interim Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly.