Concern Grows Over Academic Freedom in Egypt

Concern Grows Over Academic Freedom in Egypt

That is what Emad el-Din Shahin, a professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo, said happened to him. Mr. Shahin, editor in chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics and a former visiting professor at Harvard University and the University of Notre Dame, is a defendant in what prosecutors have dubbed “the greatest espionage case in the country’s modern history.”

Mr. Shahin’s co-defendants are mostly senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including former President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by the army following mass protests last summer. Among the specific charges against the professor are espionage, leading an illegal organization, providing a banned organization with information and financial support, calling for the suspension of the constitution, preventing state institutions and authorities from performing their functions, harming national unity and social harmony, and trying to change the government by force.

“It was a shock. I never thought they would go this far, to this level of fabrication,” Mr. Shahin told The Chronicle from the United States, where he was attending a conference when news of the charges became public, in late January. The professor, who has remained abroad ever since and who denies all the charges, said the accusations were payback for his criticism of the military-backed government.

“It is part of a deliberate attempt to stifle any type of independent or critical position with regard to the coup,” said the professor. “They are widening the scope of the crackdown against any type of opposition.”

The Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America issued a statement this month calling on the Egyptian government to drop the charges. “The members of our committee know Dr. Shahin to be a person of the utmost integrity and an Egyptian patriot who would never harm his home country,” the statement said.

The case has raised concerns among Western academics who study the Middle East, said Nathan J. Brown, the association’s president, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, and a friend of Mr. Shahin who has spoken out on his behalf. “When someone like Emad is treated like a threat to the state, you wonder what kind of a state it is,” he said.

Before Mr. Brown visited Egypt recently for an academic conference, some colleagues expressed concerns about whether it was safe to travel here at the moment, he said. “Academics are beginning to think twice about visiting Egypt,” he added. “They think they can be harassed for who they meet with and for public statements.”

Emad el-Din Shahin has been indicted on charges of espionage. Credit Courtesy of The American University in Cairo

Mr. Shahin’s case has drawn the most public attention, but other academics also face prosecution for public statements. Amr Hamzawy, a professor of political science, also at the American University in Cairo, has been charged with “insulting the judiciary” for a post on Twitter criticizing a court ruling. Mr. Hamzawy has played a prominent political role in the last three years, winning a seat in Parliament and leading a liberal party. He has also criticized the military’s ouster of Mr. Morsi last summer and the crackdown on Islamists that has left more than 1,000 dead and tens of thousands in prison.

Faculty members and students at the American University in Cairo have circulated a statement in support of Mr. Shahin, saying that he “advocates for a free and democratic Egypt.

“He, like all Egyptians, has a right to his opinions and beliefs,” it adds. “The Egyptian government responded to Dr. Shahin’s beliefs by charging him with crimes he did not commit.”

Egyptian academics at other institutions have been less outspoken. Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, brushed aside questions about the charges against Mr. Shahin and Mr. Hamzawy, saying he was not aware of the particulars of their cases.

Amr Hamzawy has been charged with ‘‘insulting the judiciary’’ for a post on Twitter criticizing a court ruling. CreditMohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

“In this moment the country is facing an exceptional situation,” Mr. Nafaa said. “The university is not really busy with so-called academic freedom.”

The priority, said Mr. Nafaa, is ending the chaos on Egyptian campuses, where Islamist students have led protests and tried to disrupt examinations, and have been violently repressed by the police.

The deep divisions in Egypt have made some political scientists hesitate to speak publicly on current events. Mr. Shahin said one Egyptian colleague decided not to attend a Georgetown University conference in late January — entitled “Egypt and the Struggle for Democracy” — for fear of reprisals.

“At least Mubarak’s regime was aging, less centralized, so there was room for dissent,” he said, referring to former President Hosni Mubarak. “This regime is very brutal and trying to consolidate power and assert its control over the political arena.”

“I won’t publish anything critical while I’m here,” said a political scientist currently working in Egypt who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from the authorities. The foreign researcher, who had previously done work on the Muslim Brotherhood, said that under Mr. Mubarak, even though the Islamic group was an illegal organization, the authorities did not object to academics meeting with its members.

Now “they don’t want anyone to present anything that is sympathetic or humanizing” of the Islamist group, which the government has officially designated a terrorist organization, the researcher said.

It is particularly hard for political scientists to avoid trouble in such a polarized political context, said the researcher, because “you can’t be completely neutral when discussing issues like democratic transition. You have to make judgments. Now you don’t know what counts as a statement that’s beyond the pale.”

This piece was originally published in the New York Times

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