North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Egyptian researchers must choose between forced exile and arrest

The Sisi regime’s authoritarian clamp-down on Egyptian academic freedom has left researchers with some stark choices

Nora Noralla
2 August 2021, 7.33am
Any Egyptian researcher abroad faces the risk of being arrested upon return to their home country
Free Ahmed Samir / Facebook

"Egyptian students abroad are the most dangerous group of emigrants." This statement by Egypt’s immigration minister, Nabila Makram, is a good indication of her government’s policy regarding academics abroad. It came after Egypt, under the military regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, had successfully tightened its grip on academic research at home. It is now working on expanding that grip to academics abroad, often using security forces, intelligence services and the infamous Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), and even the country’s embassies.

This tightening grip has already found numerous victims, including Walid Salem, Ahmed Samir, Patrick Zaki, and others. Their arrests demonstrate the arbitrariness of the Egyptian security system. Any Egyptian researcher abroad faces the risk of being arrested upon return to their home country. This presents a dilemma: return and face the possibility of arrest, or stay abroad and live in exile.

As an Egyptian researcher myself and a colleague of some of those arrested, I have opted for the latter: to be exiled from my country to avoid the regime’s grasp. However, not everyone is as privileged as I am to have this option. After all, Egyptians and others from the global South have restricted freedom of movement and face numerous challenges to obtain visas and the right to stay in other countries, especially in the West.

Even if you manage to escape Egypt, there is still a large chance that the regime will follow you. This was the case with Taqadum Al-Khatib, an Egyptian researcher residing in Germany who, like me, has opted to expose the regime and continue living in exile.

Al-Khatib’s actions led to the regime targeting his family, a tactic which, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHI), which has documented at least 12 such cases since 2016, has been widely used to intimidate dissidents abroad. Al-Khatib was subjected to widespread defamation campaigns in the Egyptian media and intimidation attempts by the Egyptian Embassy in Berlin.

Crackdown on research

Another dilemma Egyptian academics face is the choice of research fields, bearing in mind their political implications. Those living abroad are often faced with three options: expose the government’s abusive practices; praise its achievements; or not mention Egypt at all and hope for the best. After all, the regime does not arrest everyone, only those who may pose a danger to it.

Even if you manage to escape Egypt, there is still a large chance that the regime will follow you

Sisi’s Egypt has a clear vision for academia: to create an academic system centered on praising the state and punishing those who dare to speak against it. Generally, what Sisi and his cronies are doing is nothing new. In fact, academia in the country has been under siege by the executive branch ever since the 1952 revolution.

There was, however, a brief respite after the 25 January 2011 revolution. For a short period after the fall of the regime of Hosni Mubarak and until the coup that brought Sisi to power in 2013, universities enjoyed more freedom. They were able to elect their own leadership instead of this being under the control of the government, student unions gained more power and police control over universities was lifted.

But these newly gained freedoms conflicted with Sisi’s vision to restore his own version of the old authoritarian regime. Soon after he took power, he issued a presidential decree giving him the power to appoint university faculty. Other decrees broadened the reasons for the state to fire faculty, including vague ethical violations and any kind of political engagement. These decrees have made the state intelligence services the guardians of academia, with every foreign visiting professor, new course, and conference participation requiring their approval.

Research topics proposed by academics are heavily monitored by the state, which dictates unreasonable limitations on what is permissible in Egypt’s universities. These measures violate Article 21 of the Constitution which stipulates: “The state must guarantee the independence of universities, scientific and linguistic academies.”

A deadly effect

The effect of these policies have been felt throughout Sisi’s tenure, with a surge in arrests and expulsions of students that started in the early days of his presidency. The Egyptian regime was also involved in the extrajudicial killing of 21 students, labelled as terrorists, supposedly in gun battles. Last year, Italy charged members of the Egyptian security forces for the 2016 kidnapping and killing of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, who was conducting research on workers’ rights at the American University in Cairo.

Academic leadership has also come under fire, with those who dare speak against the regime receiving heavy punishments, ranging from arbitrary dismissal to the denial of academic degrees and outright unlawful arrests. Victims of this academic purge include Ahmed Al-Tohamy, a political science professor who has been detained since 3 June 2020, and Manar Al-Tantawi, who is being denied her academic degree merely because she is the wife of an ex-political prisoner, and was later investigated for demanding her rights.

Others, including those mentioned earlier in this article, have also faced punishments. Salem, a judicial researcher, was released after 200 days of imprisonment, but the Egyptian authorities did not allow him to return to the US, where he was conducting his research. Zaki has been in pre-trial detention since February 2020, with no end in sight to this unlawful imprisonment. Samir’s case represents a worrying practice that could easily become a new trend, as he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment after a speedy trial in a terrorism court with no chance to appeal.

Under Sisi’s aggressive policies against academia, this list is likely to get longer in the future.

Foreign universities and governments hosting Egyptian researchers and students carry part of the blame, as they often fail to ensure their safety. Moreover, the international community has systematically failed to take real steps to stop Egypt’s abusive practices, due to its important geopolitical role. The Egyptian academic community is left to face this battle alone. It is certainly a hard battle, but it is led by courageous people who despite the odds still choose to expose the regime, even if it means putting themselves at risk. Most of those who live in exile wish to return, but under this atmosphere of fear it is hard to see that happening any time soon.

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