Emad Mubarak Abd El-Raheem is introducing the concept of academic freedom as a right in Egypt. Through his work with students, professors, administrative staff, the media, and citizen organizations, he is promoting academic freedom so it can be universally guaranteed in Egyptian universities.
The New Idea
Emad works to ensure academic freedom within Egyptian universities so the over 2.5 million students and university staff can enjoy the rights guaranteed by international conventions. His aim is to operationalize the 1988 Lima Declaration on academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions of higher education. Additionally, he calls on the state to honor its obligation to ensure all members of the academic community the civic, political, economic, social, and cultural rights recognized in the United Nations 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 strategy has four components: First, he educates students about their rights concerning their activities and provides legal support to those subjected to discipline committees. Second, he works with university professors and administrators, as well as education experts to guarantee that all students have the opportunity to participate in student unions and freely express opinions on any topic. Third, Emad helps professors research and teach free of interference, and enjoy the freedom to maintain contact with colleagues around the world. Lastly, Emad develops and launches awareness campaigns targeted to the academic community and society at-large, including citizen organizations (COs), the media, and the general public. These campaigns serve to inform the community about the notion of academic freedom, the violations committed against it, and the importance of defending these rights.
By defending students’ rights and making strides to curb laws that stifle academic freedoms, Emad is beginning to reverse the repressive trend of the past fifty years.
While Egypt has a long history of academic freedom and outstanding universities, the situation has deteriorated dramatically since the 1954 revolution. Today, these freedoms have been severely repressed, with state security deeply involved in major aspects of academic life, from the appointment of administrators and professors, to arresting anyone who criticizes the regime.
Currently, Egyptian authorities censor textbooks, prohibit research on controversial issues, and restrict classroom discussions, research projects, student activities, campus demonstrations, and university governance. Several of these actions are supported by national legislation, the most infamous being the 1979 Law for University Governance. The rights of students are specifically affected by the executive and student bylaws of this law, which include articles that further restrict and hinder academic freedom, penalizing students who distribute flyers and post wall posters without permission, as well as those who vandalize university buildings. In 1994, another law stipulated that university administrators be appointed rather than elected, regardless of the candidate’s academic performance or achievement.
State legislation violating academic freedom has a negative impact on the work of university faculty members by limiting the topics they are permitted to research and teach. 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. They are also severely hindered in communicating and collaborating with colleagues around the world, as they must obtain special permission to partake in the active exchange of ideas.
Such pervasive repression has developed an atmosphere of self-censorship in Egypt and stifles the university’s function as a center of innovative thought and leadership. However, the academic community and public at-large are not familiar with the concept of academic freedom and as a result, tend to be oblivious to the widespread violations taking place and the negative ramifications. As such, these violations continue to occur without opposition.
Outside forces also frequently violate academic freedom within university settings. Militants and activists, for instance, intimidate professors and students and have gone so far as to verbally, legally, and physically attack individuals to prevent research in controversial religious or moral areas. The state’s failure to protect institutes of higher learning from such militants further violates one’s freedom.
Aside from one informal group of professors (the Working Group for University Autonomy) that hold demonstrations in response to specific government violations of academic freedom, there are no other COs working solely for this cause in Egypt.
Emad established the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression in 2005 and developed a four-part strategy to improve the condition of academic freedom in Egypt. First, he supports students’ academic rights by providing legal assistance to those who are subjected to discipline committee reviews. In 2007, the organization provided legal assistance to twenty-nine different students. Emad has also held workshops and distributed information focused on academic freedom to educate students about their rights.
In his next line of action, Emad educates university faculty and administration about their roles as leaders within the university while also encouraging them to take action to claim their rights. Emad collaborates with four leading professors who act as consulting partners for his initiative, and is in direct contact with 200 faculty members from universities throughout Egypt.
Third, Emad promotes the concept of academic freedom as an inherent right in all sectors of society by documenting all violations. He publishes the information in an effort to raise social awareness, and disseminates it through workshops, brochures, newsletters, and his organization’s website. In doing so, he hopes to inform students, teachers, COs, and the broader community about their responsibility to protect these rights, as well as to provide the tools and mechanisms necessary to access them.
The fourth pillar of Emad’s strategy is mobilizing society against restrictions on academic freedom. He has launched campaigns to pressure the violators—whether they are government or independent groups or even individuals—and denounce their actions. To spread awareness among the community, Emad has published a number of books, studies, and flyers that he has distributed and posted on his CO’s website. He has also been vocal in various media outlets, writing newspaper opinion pieces and giving television interviews.
In the short-term, Emad plans to spread his message further by creating a network of human rights COs, key professors, judges, journalists, and students, to both help guide his work and expand it more deeply into each of these sectors. In the long-run, Emad’s goal is for academic freedom declarations and best practices to be taught in law, mass communications, political science, and the arts. He developed this plan after collaborating with leading students from these faculties during his training and awareness sessions. Emad believes these students will be the leaders, teachers, and politicians of the future and should actively participate in the pursuit of academic freedom.
Emad’s objectives for the next ten years include a number of concrete systemic change results. First, he will work with the academic community to influence modifications in the laws that govern universities and in the 1979 Student Bylaws, thus ensuring more academic freedom in all Egyptian universities. He has begun collaborating with key students, professors and a judge, to develop working papers proposing such modifications and hopes to train 100 student leaders each year. Next, Emad will change the system for the appointment of university deans to the previous election system. Emad will also end state intervention in the internal issues of universities and academic research centers, thereby eliminating violations that restrict the freedom of scientific researchers.
Emad grew up in Ezbet Awlad Allam, a poor area of Dokki. He is from a lower-middle-class family and has nine siblings. In high school, Emad became particularly involved in extracurricular activities, and founded a youth group with his brother for the students in his neighborhood, aimed to educate them about Egypt’s rich history. During this period, Emad 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 thirty-four, leaving Emad to continue the work they began together.
Throughout college, Emad was a leading opponent of the 1979 bylaw eliminating students’ freedoms inside university campuses. As a result, he was referred to discipline committee reviews on several occasions. In 1999, Emad 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 chance to gain practical experience during the course of their education and have access to better job opportunities once they graduated.
After graduation, Emad worked 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, but 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 begun to build a coalition to lay the groundwork to reverse the trend of fifty years of academic repression.