Emad is introducing the concept of academic freedom as a right in Egypt. Through his work with students, professors, administrative staff, the media and citizen sector organizations, he is promoting the right of academic freedom so that it can be universally guaranteed and enjoyed in Egyptian universities.
While Egypt has a long history of academic freedom and outstanding universities, the situation has deteriorated dramatically since 1954 revolution. Today academic freedom has been severely repressed, with state security deeply involved with major aspects from appointment of administrators and professors, to arresting students and professors who criticize the regime.
Emad’s idea is to support, promote and ensure academic freedom within Egyptian universities, to enable 2.5 million students and 34.000 university staff to enjoy their rights as stated by international conventions. Emad’s aim is to operationalize the 1988 Lima Declaration on academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions of higher education. He calls on the state to honor its obligation to respect and ensure to all members of the academic community the civic, political, economic, social and cultural rights recognized in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Egyptian constitution. These rights include freedom of thought, expression, assembly and association, as well as the right to liberty and security of movement.
Emad’s approach is four pronged: first, he works with and for students, educating them about their rights concerning student activities, campus demonstrations and participation in university governance. He also provides legal support to students subjected to discipline committees, reviews and documents these violations of academic freedom. Second, he works with university professors and administrators, and education experts to guarantee that all students have the opportunity to participate in student unions and freely express opinions on any topics, whether of
national or international concern. Third, he works to help university professors and lecturers carry out research and teach free of interference, and enjoy the freedom to maintain contact with their counterparts in any part of the world. Fourth, he develops and launches awareness campaigns targeted to the academic community and society at large, including CSOs, the media and the general public. These campaigns serve to inform the community about the concepts of academic freedom, the violations committed against academic freedom and the importance of defending these rights.
By successfully defending students and making minor changes in some of the many laws which stifle the academic freedom, Emad will begin to reverse the trend of the past fifty years. By restoring some elements of academic freedom and building greater awareness in society, the pendulum can slowly move toward the academic freedom which Egypt previously enjoyed.
Egypt previously had a long tradition of academic freedom but the Nasser revolution of 1954 changed everything quickly and dramatically. In the 1970s the situation deteriorated further with Sadat sacking 34 university professors, supposedly for religious teaching. Mubarak institutionalized this repression by having university staff appointed with state security having a major role in all appointments. Most recently, the state can now imprison students for 90 days and suspend them for 3 years for disagreeing with professors or criticizing the government.
According to the 2005 report of Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian government stifles academic freedom in universities by censoring textbooks, prohibiting research on controversial issues and intimidating student activists. The report “Reading between the Red Lines: The Repression of Academic Freedom in Egyptian Universities” illustrates the ongoing government restrictions on classroom discussion, research projects, student activities, campus demonstrations and university governance. Such pervasive repression has caused the development of an atmosphere of self-censorship. Additionally, state security forces have a very prominent position in all Egyptian universities, detaining, abusing and arresting activists who run for student union offices or demonstrate on campus. State-appointed administrators have the authority to approve all curricular and extracurricular activities undertaken on campus and can therefore interfere in class discussions and the selection of research topics of students and faculty.
There are several national legislations that infringe upon campus affairs and academic freedoms. The most infamous law is the 1979 Law for University Governance, which contains many subsections that combine to severely restrict academic freedom and the autonomy of universities. In 1994, another law stipulated that university administrators be appointed rather than elected. The appointment and promotion of university professors is also subject to the approval of the state-mandated security unit of the university regardless of the candidates’ academic performance or achievement. Article 317 of the University Law introduced state security units on all university campuses. The authority of these security units were expanded in 1984 to include the right to accuse, prosecute and arrest students considered a threat to university security.
What is more, the rights of students are specifically affected by the executive and student bylaws of the Law for University Governance, which include articles that further restrict and hinder academic freedom. Article 124, for example, penalizes students who distribute flyers and post wall posters without permission, as well as students who vandalize university buildings. Students brought before the discipline committee cannot appeal the committee’s decision once it is made. Thus, the University Law serves to control and stifle the autonomy of student union elections and operations
Such articles and stipulations were exacerbated by the infamous 1979 Student Bylaws, which clearly controlled students’ freedom and the independence and autonomy of student unions. The bylaws included articles that authorized university administrators and faculty to appoint the leaders and the treasurers of university student unions. It prohibited students who were accused of violating the University Laws or who were politically active from running for student union office. It is important to note here that the head of the university security unit has the right to accuse and refer students to the discipline committees without concrete evidence, and thus prevent them from running for student office. In 2007, this tactic was used to prevent the participation of more than 450 students in different Egyptian universities in student union elections.
Students involved in the Islamic movement have also been specifically targeted. University security forces have submitted these students to particularly harsh treatment, including arbitrary arrest, long periods of detention and punishment for both peaceful and aggressive expressions of their political views. These students have also been barred from running in student union office elections and thus participating in the decision making process of the student body.
State legislation violating academic freedom also has a specific negative impact on the work of university faculty members by limiting the topics they are permitted to research and teach students. Rather than working critically and innovatively, and encouraging their students to do the same, university professors are forced to develop curricula and research projects that comply with the state’s restrictive parameters. Rather than maintaining open, unhindered communication and collaboration with their colleagues working in other universities throughout the world, professors at Egyptian universities must obtain special permission to partake in the active exchange of ideas that is a central concept in modern higher education. University security forces also have the authority to prevent the organization of seminars, meetings and workshops arranged by university faculty.
Violations of academic freedom within universities are committed by other groups as well. Islamist militants and activists intimidate professors and students in several areas of campus life. In many cases, these militants have verbally, legally and physically attacked academics to stop them from researching controversial religious or moral topics. The state’s failure and inability to protect academic freedom from Islamist militants adds to the list of violations of academic freedom.
These governmental and nongovernmental violations threaten all forms of academic freedom and stifle the university’s ability to fulfill its role as society’s beacon of creativity, initiation and leadership. However, the general lack of knowledge among the academic community and the public at large with regard to the concept of academic freedom and the extent of the violations that are taking place allow the violations to continue without widespread opposition. Additionally, the media is neither knowledgeable nor concerned with academic freedom, and society as a whole is unaware of the potential negative social repercussions of the absence of academic freedom in Egyptian universities.
There is no other CSO working on or focusing solely on academic freedom in Egypt. Most human rights groups focus on political rights in general, torture in prisons, corruption, or the media’s freedom of expression. These groups only consider the violations against students in universities as an example of repression and absence of democracy. There is one informal group of university professors that calls itself the Working Group for University Autonomy, also known as the 9th of March Movement. They are an informal group that limits its activities to demonstrations held in response to specific cases of government violation of academic freedom.
Emad endeavored to reach his goals through establishing his CSO, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, in 2005. His strategy is based on four pillars. First, he supports students’ academic rights by providing legal assistance to students who are subjected to discipline committee reviews.
In 2007, his CSO provided legal assistance to 29 different students who were referred to the discipline committees at different universities. He has held workshops and distributed information focused on academic freedom in order to educate students about their rights. Twenty students participated in the first workshop, and 18 students participated in the second.
Second, he works with university faculty and administration to educate them as to their roles in universities, facilitating the exploration, acquisition and development of knowledge, as well as to encourage them to take action to claim their rights. He works for the professors’ ability to research and teach free of interventions or obstacles posed by the state or informal groups. He also helps university faculty and administration ensure that students are guaranteed their rights. Emad collaborates with four leading professors who act as consulting partners for his initiative. He is in direct contact with 200 faculty members from universities throughout Egypt, and through them, is able to reach an additional 450 professors.
Recently, he began working in a participatory manner with key students, professors and a judge, to develop working papers proposing the modification of the infamous 1979 Student Bylaws. Emad plans to train 100 student leaders each year, expecting these students to train 400 more students on the ideas and methods he is proposing.
Third, Emad promotes the concept of academic freedom as a right among all sectors of society. A critical aspect of this part of Emad’s strategy is his documentation of all violations of academic freedom. Emad monitors and then records all violations that are committed, whether by the state or other actors. He then publishes this information in an effort to inform and raise the awareness of various groups in society. He disseminates information through workshops, brochures, newsletters and his CSO’s website. By these means, he intends to inform students, teachers, CSOs and the community at large about the importance of academic freedom, the responsibility and duties of the academic community and the tools and mechanisms that can be used to access these rights.
The fourth pillar of Emad’s strategy is to educate the public, by mobilizing society against the violations and restrictions of academic freedom. Emad has launched campaigns to pressure the violators and denounce their actions, whether such violations are committed by government, nongovernmental groups or individuals. To spread awareness among the community at large, he has published a number of books, studies and flyers that he has distributed and posted on his CSO’s website. He has also been vocal in various media outlets, writing newspaper opinion pieces and giving television interviews.
To scale up, his plan in the medium term is to create a network of human rights CSOs, key professors, judges, journalists and students. He has created a steering committee of four professors, three journalists, two CSO leaders and few students to help guide his work and spread it more deeply into each of those groups. Emad believes that, in order for his campaign to become a movement, civil society organizations must be informed about violations of academic freedom and participate in lobbying for the modification of restrictive laws and practices. He also aims to engage the media in order to expand the reach of his message. Emad has already disseminated information through various media channels. These members of the media will be trained in all aspects of academic freedom and how to report on and lobby against violations.
In the long run, Emad’s goal is for academic freedom declarations and best practices to be taught in faculties of law, mass communication, political science and arts. He developed this plan after collaborating with the leading students from these faculties during his training and awareness sessions. Emad believes that these students will be the leaders, teachers and politicians of the future and should thus actively participate in the pursuit of academic freedom.
Emad’s objectives for the next 10 years include a number of concrete systemic change results. First, he plans to influence modifications in the laws that govern universities and in the 1979 Student Bylaws, and thus ensure more academic freedom in all Egyptian universities. He will achieve this in cooperation with the concerned members of the academic community. Second, he plans to change the system of appointment of university deans to the previous election system, in order to ensure the integrity and good representation of the deans. Third, he plans to end state intervention in the internal issues of universities and the academic research centers, thereby eliminating violations that restrict the freedom of scientific researchers.
Emad was born in 1977 and grew up in Ezbet Awlad Allam, a poor area of Dokki. He comes from a lower middle class family and has nine brothers and sisters. Emad attended public school and then entered the Faculty of Law of Ain Shams University.
In high school, Emad became particularly involved in extracurricular activities, which is reflected in his founding of a youth organization consisting of other students in his neighborhood. This group, which Emad started with his brother Hisham, aimed to educate the children of the neighborhood and expose them to Egypt’s rich history by organizing field trips to sites such as the Citadel and the Egyptian Museum.
During this period, he started to view his older brother Hisham, a social entrepreneur himself, as an important role model. In 1994, Hisham was the first lawyer in Egypt to establish a center specifically designed to provide direct legal assistance to the public. Hisham unexpectedly died of a heart attack at the age of 34, leaving Emad to continue the work they began together in the neighborhood as young students.
Throughout college, Emad was one of the leading opponents of the 1979 bylaw eliminating students’ freedoms inside university campuses. As a result, he was referred to reviews of the discipline committee on several occasions. In 1999, he was arrested and detained for twenty-two days due to his solidarity with the students of the Faculty of Education in opposing the cancellation of the Governmental Obligations, which gave students the opportunity to gain practical experience during the course of their education and have access to better job opportunities once they graduated.
After graduation, Emad began working in the Hisham Mubarak Center, as a legal assistant and researcher with a special focus on human rights. He initially worked to defend his neighborhood from being relocated by the rich, well-connected land developers. Once he won that case he returned to his passion of defending academic freedom.
Emad has no political affiliation and is not involved with any politically-oriented organizations. By working in a non partisan manner, he has earned the confidence and trust of many different groups and has begin to build a coalition which is laying the ground work to reverse the trend of fifty years of academic repression on a step by step basis.