Sunday, July 06, 2014

Nature editorial on the grim situation of academic freedom in Egypt

by Salman Hameed

Grim is perhaps a soft word. Hundreds of people have been handed death sentences in mass trials and thousands others are languishing in jail for political dissent. Nature does a fine job of providing numbers for those affected in the academia. Here are some chilling facts:
The network [The International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies] has also expressed concern that, among 41,000 prisoners arrested since the coup, around 1,000 are engineers, physicians and scientists.

In April, a group of Egyptian scholars published a report on the academic victims of the unrest that followed the military coup, documenting by name and affiliation those who had been arrested or killed by the Egyptian authorities. The tally includes 1,347 student arrests and 176 student deaths. Sixteen of the deaths took place during police raids on campus. Seven faculty members have been killed, 160 placed under arrest, 20 put on parole and 25 are on the run.
 This is unbelievably sad and the reaction of much of the world, including US, has been shameful. The Nature editorial then gets into the details of administrative and campus security changes under Sisi. These details are important as well, but I think any commentary on those details pale in comparison to the numbers above. Here are some of the details: 
What frustrated the hopes of the Egyptian Arab Spring? Morsi, an Islamist — who happens to hold a PhD in materials science — only narrowly beat his secular opponents to become the country’s first democratically elected president. But moves he made to empower the Muslim Brotherhood alienated many. He proved unable to control the economy, and the country descended once again into political chaos.

Impatient for change after the revolution, in September 2011 thousands of university faculty staff from around the country demonstrated in Cairo, demanding that university leaders — all appointed directly by Mubarak — be replaced. A system allowing faculty members to elect their own rectors and deans was introduced. The protesters had also called for police to be banned from campuses unless explicitly invited by university administrations — a reaction against the oversight of campuses by state security guards during Mubarak’s rule.
The new era has reversed both of these reforms. Almost immediately, police moved onto campuses to disrupt frequent demonstrations there against the regime, many organized by Islamist sympathizers angry at Morsi’s removal, and many of which interrupted teaching activities. As the new statistics show, the clashes too often ended in violence.
And last week, Morsi’s successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, issued a presidential decree that puts the appointment of university leaders once more under his control, a move that is widely believed will allow the regime to oust any supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who have been elected to the posts.
Democracy cannot be built in a day. Egyptian universities have on occasion been rather naive in their response to their new freedoms. The election of academic leaders by faculty members is common in Europe, but is increasingly being phased out as its obvious weakness — that rectors might be appointed on the basis of popularity or in exchange for favours, rather than on competence — has become apparent. More usually, rectors are selected by a university board, and faculty input is indirect. Still, faculty election is better than crude political appointment.
 Here is the full editorial (but you may need subscription to access it).

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