Academia in Egypt: Security forces and self-censorship

Thousands of Egyptians celebrated the 25th of January 2011 revolution anniversary at Al Etihadia Palace Square. Demonstrators chanted for the army and police and raised flags and banners bearing images of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (Photo: Adham Khorshed / Demotix)

Egyptian demonstrators chanting for the army and police and raising flags and banners bearing images of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But since the military-backed removal of Mohamed Morsi in summer 2013, academic freedom has been further corroded. (Image: Adham Khorshed/Demotix)

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.

This article was posted on 15 April 2014 at

Gaza: Hamas reopens Palestinian news agency

A Palestinian news agency closed down in the Gaza Strip for allegedly fabricating reports regarding Hamas and their support for pro-Morsi Egyptian Islamist groups is to reopen after four months.

The decision to allow work once again at the offices of Ma’an News Agency, the largest independent TV, radio and online media group in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was the result of a meeting between the Hamas leader President Haniyeh and those of Palestinian factions on Saturday. According to Khaled al-Batsh, leader of the Islamic Jihad Movement, the meeting was called by Haniyeh to deliberate issues in the Gaza Strip, including potential reconciliation among Palestinian political factions. The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement was not represented at the meeting.

A spokesman for Hamas, Ehab Ghissin, stated that Haniyeh “gave his instructions for the Ministry of Information to open the agency’s bureau” as long as Ma’an abides by professionalism and accuracy in its work.

The office of Ma’an was closed down in July after publishing reports suggesting Hamas was involved in supporting terror groups opposed to Egypt’s new regime. Citing Israeli sources the article stated the Hamas government gave refuge to fugitive leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in a Gaze hotel. After the meeting President Haniyeh spoke of the importance of a positive relationship between Egypt and Palestine, emphasising that Hamas is a national movement that does not depend on external organisations.

The decision to reopen the news office in Gaza was welcomed by Ma’an General Director, Raed Othman. “Ma’an aims to provide its media services to all Palestinians everywhere,” he said, adding that the news organisation will attempt to increase its activity in the area in the coming weeks.

The Saudi Arabian news channel Al-Arabiya was also shut down for the same reason and at the same time as Ma’an. Despite discussion during Saturday’s meeting to reopen Al-Arabiya too, the organisation remains closed in the Gaza Strip. The news channel has openly stated it was in favour of the removal of President Morsi from power.

Turmoil in Egypt continues, as state of emergency is declared

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in three Suez Canal cities on Monday night, defying a night-time curfew and a month-long state of emergency declared by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi a day earlier.

“Down with Mohamed Morsi! No to the emergency law,”they chanted.

In a televised address to the nation on Sunday, the Islamist President announced the imposition of martial law in the restive cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia in a bid “to end the bloodshed and protect citizens.” The move came in response to four days of street violence that left more than 50 people dead and hundreds of others injured.

Egyptian police fire tear gas in Alexandria

The latest wave of unrest was sparked by nationwide anti-government protests on the eve of the second anniversary of the mass uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, that began on 25 Jan 2011. Opposition activists on Friday reiterated the now-familiar revolutionary slogans of “bread, freedom and social justice” and “the people want the downfall of the regime”.

They demanded quicker reforms and called for amendments to the Islamist-tinged constitution passed in a popular referendum in December. The situation deteriorated further after 21 defendants charged with involvement in last February’s violence at Port Said football stadium — the worst football-related violence in the country’s history — were sentenced to death on Sunday. The verdict triggered angry riots and attacks on police stations in Port Said.

The army has been deployed in Port Said and Suez in a bid “to restore stability and protect vital installations,” a military spokesman said on Egyptian TV. “Those who defy the curfew or damage public property will be dealt with harshly,” he warned.

In Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, demonstrators meanwhile staged rallies to protest the return of the much-detested emergency law, which was used for decades by Mubarak to round up opponents, silence voices of dissent and stifle freedom of expression. The protesters accused President Morsi of using the same repressive tactics as his predecessor.

“Morsi is Mubarak,” they shouted, “Down with the rule of the (Muslim Brotherhood) Supreme Guide.”

In recent weeks, a government crackdown on journalists critical of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood has fuelled concerns of restrictions on press freedoms gained after the January 2011 uprising. Several journalists have faced criminal investigations after being accused by Morsi’s Islamist supporters of “insulting the president”.

In December, a lawsuit was filed against Egypt’s answer to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show — satirist Bassem Youssef — for poking fun at the president on his weekly television programme Al Bernameg (The Programme) on Egyptian independent satellite channel CBC. Youssef appeared on the show hugging a pillow with the president’s picture on it — a gesture mocking Morsi’s repeated calls on Egyptians to “unify ranks and love one another”. While the court dismissed the charge, the case served as a reminder to journalists that the country’s controversial new constitution includes provisions forbidding insults.

Meanwhile the online editor-in-chief for state-sponsored newspaper Al Ahram, Hani Shukrallah, was forced into early retirement this month. Highly respected for his objectivity in covering the news, Shukrallah would not reveal the details surrounding his removal from the post, but some have suggested via Twitter that his dismissal was for not being pro-Muslim Brotherhood.

In December, Islamist protesters staged a sit-in outside the Media Production City calling for “the purging of the media” and accusing independent journalists and talk show hosts of vilifying the Islamist President.

In Cairo, security forces continued battling rock-throwing youths around Kasr-el-Nil, not far from Tahrir Square for a fifth consecutive day on Monday, disrupting traffic in the downtown area. The protesters hurled molotov cocktails at the police and set fire to a police armoured personnel carrier, in scenes reminiscent of “The Friday of Rage” on 28 January 2011.

Members of the 6 April youth movement that called for the mass uprising two years ago condemned the government’s slow response to the violence and warned that the state of emergency would further provoke Morsi’s opponents. They called for a political solution to address the root cause of the problem.

Emerging from talks with the president on Monday night, Ayman Nour, Head of the liberal Ghad Al Thawra Party said that the president had rejected the call for a national unity government but had agreed to amendments to the constitution including articles that opposition political parties say undermine women’s rights.

Rights groups denounced Morsi’s declaration of a state of emergency as “a backward step” that would allow police to resort to the heavy-handed tactics practiced under the ousted regime.

Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch in Cairo lamented Morsi’s decision to re-impose martial law describing it as “a classic knee-jerk reaction that would pave the way for more abuse by the Ministry of Interior, causing more anger.”

Analysts have expressed fears meanwhile, that the newly-declared state of emergency will plunge the country — battered by weeks of street violence — into deeper political and economic turmoil, and further polarising the already divided country. The emergence of the mysterious “Black Bloc”, a group that has vowed “to protect the goals of the revolution and rid the country of the fascist regime” has raised alarm. Islamists have so far exercised restraint and have stayed away from the protests, in order to avoid the kind of bloody confrontation witnessed in December outside of the presidential palace. They have warned warned however, that their patience is wearing thin, and that they are preparing for combat should the need arise. Such warnings have led some to even express fears of a collapse in Egyptian society. A scenario that would present Egypt’s powerful military with a fresh opportunity to return to power.

For Egypt’s women, the revolution has only begun

The women of Egypt played a huge role in the uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. They were on the frontlines, standing shoulder to shoulder with men in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.” Their participation in the eighteen-day mass protests raised hopes for greater inclusion of women in the decision-making process and an end to the gender discriminatory policies of the past.

However since the January 25 2011 revolution Egyptian women’s voices have been drowned out, and the “new Egypt” continues to marginalise women.

Today, as the country’s new constitution is being written, hopes are fading that Egypt’s new governing code will guarantee full and equal participation of women, and there are growing concerns that women may even lose rights gained in recent years.

Egyptians celebrate revolution's first anniversary, Cairo. Amr Abdel-Hadi | Demotix

Egyptian women celebrate the one year anniversary of the country’s revolution in Cairo. Amr Abdel-Hadi | Demotix