The 9th of March marks the anniversary of the Egyptian University Autonomy Day; however, there is still considerable debate regarding the extent to which academic freedom and university autonomy standards are being upheld in Egyptian universities. It is necessary to shed light on the definition of university autonomy and academic freedom according to the relevant international conventions, which are applied in various universities around the world.
Academic freedom is “the liberty of members of the academic community, individually or collectively, to pursue, develop and transmit knowledge and ideas, through research, teaching, study, discussion, documentation, production, creation and / or writing”. Academic freedom requires the autonomy of higher education institutions. University autonomy can be defined as “the independence of institutions of higher education from the State and all other forces of society, to make decisions regarding its internal government, finance, administration, and to establish its policies of education, research, extension work and other related activities”, according to the Lima Declaration of 1988 on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education.
The Lima Declaration also emphasized, “All members of the academic community with research functions have the right to carry out research work without any interference, subject to the universal principles and methods of scientific enquiry. They also have the right to communicate the conclusions of their research freely to others and to publish them without censorship” and “All members of the academic community with teaching functions have the right to teach without any interference, subject to the accepted principles, standards and methods of teaching”.
In this context, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression asserts its deep concern over the severe restrictions imposed on faculty members, and the growing frequency of threats and referrals to investigation panels and disciplinary hearings. Moreover, there has been an alarming interference in the work and academic research of faculty members by public and Al-Azhar university administrations. These violations are only examples of a general atmosphere of regression of the state of academic freedom and university autonomy, and an increasing interference by the executive branch of the government through amending legislation that relates to the selection and dismissal of university leadership, and the disciplinary system for faculty members.
It is evident that public universities and Al-Azhar University administrations succumbed to political pressure by the media and the executive during the current academic year 2014/2015, especially regarding the work of faculty members; imposing various restrictions on academic research and teaching through interfering in doctoral and master’s degrees, as well as, interfering in the work of faculty members, whether in teaching or in theses discussions, under a general oppressive political climate.
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression monitored at least four confirmed violations of academic freedom during the current academic year, most notably the referral of Dr. Adel Badr, Professor of Philosophy at Al Mansoura University, to a disciplinary hearing after he was subject to an investigation panel by the university administration on February 28th of this year. Dr. Badr was charged with inciting students to violence, incitement to overthrow the regime, and insulting the regime, this came after an argument between Dr. Badr and Dr. Ibrahim Tolba during discussing a master’s dissertation in philosophy, on the 19th of February at Al-Mansoura University. Dr. Badr criticized the current political regime in response to his colleague Ibrahim Tolba- who was part of the discussion panel, and who claimed that the current political regime has a clear vision for the future. Afterwards, Al-Mansoura University decided to suspend Dr. Badr for six months and prevent him from entering university premises except for meeting with the investigation panel, in addition to giving him only three quarters of his monthly salary, according to a statement by Dr. Adel Badr to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression on the 7th of March 2015.
The second case is the case of Dr. Madiha Al-Sayeh, Professor at the Faculty of Arabic and Islamic Studies (Dar Al-Uloom) at Cairo University, who was referred to an investigation panel and suspended for three months on the 22nd of January of this year, for teaching scientific material from the writings of Sayed Qotb on the rhetoric of the Qur’an.
The third case is that of a group of researchers at Al-Azhar University registered as master’s and PhD students, where the titles of their dissertations were amended by the University, after Al-Azhar’s administration claimed that these titles violate Al-Azhar’s moderate Islamic thought and threaten national unity. This was confirmed by Dr. Tawfik Noureldin, Vice President of Al-Azhar University on the 28th of December 2014 in a statement to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.
On the 21st of September 2014, the PhD dissertation of the researcher Mohamed Ibrahim Abou Attia- a researcher at the faculty of Islamic Discourse at Al-Azhar University, was rejected; moreover, the members of the dissertation committee were referred to an investigation panel, namely Dr. Omar Abd El Aziz, Head of Religions and Sects Department at Al-Azhar University, Dr. Mahmoud Mazrou’a, Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the Faculty of Theology in Minoufeya, and Dr. Magid Abdelsalam, Professor at the Faculty of Islamic Discourse. The university’s administration also decided to review all dissertations at the Faculty of Islamic Discourse.
Furthermore, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression monitored two violations of university autonomy through the imposition of restrictions on university leadership and in some cases, their dismissal. Firstly, the Supreme Council of Universities exempted Dr. Hamed Attia from his position of vice president of Al-Zagazig University after he was exposed to criminal prosecution and remanded since June 11th 2014, which was announced by Ashraf al-Shehhi, president of Al-Zagazig University on the 26th of January of this year. Secondly, the president of Alexandria University, Osama Ibrahim resigned from office on the 20th of October 2014 after he objected to a visit to the Faculty of Commerce and its sports courts and stadiums by the Governor of Alexandria and the Minister of Youth and Sports, without informing him prior to the visit.
Dr. Ibrahim was previously subjected to other political pressures where a media campaign was launched demanding his resignation and claiming that he is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Dr. Ibrahim was also stopped at Cairo International Airport on December 6th 2013 and was prevented from leaving to Qatar to attend a scientific conference, until he officially resigned from the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood in the form of an official letter addressed to the Minister of Transitional Justice and National Reconciliation on January 5th 2014.
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression repudiates the lobbying and intervening in the work of university leaderships, whether by the executive branch of the government or by the media. This intervention in university autonomy portrays university administrations as a tool in restricting and violating academic freedom, which is evident in the examples mentioned above. Providing a suitable environment for research, discussion and training within universities is indispensable, in order to warrant the conservation and transference of knowledge, and safeguard the development of generations to come in a free and open environment.
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression is adamant on highlighting such cases on the day of Egyptian University Autonomy because they clearly indicate the deterioration of the state of academic freedom and university autonomy. Such cases denote an alarming increase in the risks plaguing the work of faculty members and researchers within the academic community.
Accordingly, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression emphasizes the responsibility of university administrations in protecting their faculty members from political, cultural or ideological pressures, ensuring their freedom of inquiry, debate, education, research and publication. In addition to, protecting faculty members from external influences, whether state, media or social influences, and internal influences from either university officials or members of the academic community. The aim is to liberate universities from the influence of those who are likely to seek to suppress any opposing views expressed academically by faculty members.
Finally, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression calls for a halt on the obstructions and pressures imposed on faculty members and the academic community, and calls on all faculty members and researchers to report any violations against them and against academic freedom through our e-mail [email protected]