Egypt’s academic community has been fighting intervention by security bodies into academic life since former President Hosni Mubarak. Many scholars have voiced major concerns over the state’s tight grip on university freedoms, particularly following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The case of Cairo University Professor Kholoud Saber is an example of this kind of security interference.
An assistant professor in the faculty of arts, Saber — who is known for her advocacy work for university independence and academic freedom — was awarded a scholarship to pursue her doctoral degree at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium in October 2015. After acquiring official permission to study abroad from both the faculty of arts and the university’s administration, Saber was officially notified that her approval was revoked on December. She was ordered to travel back to Egypt and resume her work at Cairo University.
According to a copy of the letter sent to Saber, which was obtained by Mada Masr, her clearance was terminated by the Survey and Information Office, an affiliate of the Ministry of Higher Education. Little is known about how this office functions or its remit.
In a telephone call from Belgium, Saber told Mada Masr that the office is connected to the Interior Ministry.
“Whatever this office is, no entity has the right to terminate the scholarship and order me to come back to Egypt,” she argues.
A law passed in 1959, governing study abroad, holidays and scholarships, mandates that either the Higher Education Ministry or a committee established by the university president should review student requests to study abroad — but none of its articles refer to the Survey and Information Office.
Saber says she does not intend to come back to Egypt and will continue to study abroad, especially given that the Leuven-based university is fully financing her tuition — bar travel expenses, which were paid for by Cairo University.
Cairo University President Gaber Nassar was unavailable for comment. However, in an interview on the privately owned OnTV satellite channel that aired earlier in February, Nassar maintained that security forces do not intervene in the university’s academic affairs.
“Cairo University safeguards academic freedoms and does not allow security interventions,” Nassar said. “But security bodies are a national entity, and the university is a national entity, and both exchange information. I challenge anyone to prove that these interventions take place.”
Hany al-Hosseiny, a Cairo University professor, as well as a leader in the March 9 Movement for the Independence of Universities, claims otherwise. The Office of Survey and Information’s link to security is a known fact, not a matter of speculation, Hosseiny claimed in a telephone interview with Mada Masr.
He explains that academics wishing to study abroad usually fill out a form with their personal information, “the same form that we used to sign before the revolution, which was submitted to security officers stationed inside universities,” he alleges. Now, he says, the form is sent to the Survey and Information Office.
Police had an official presence inside universities under Mubarak. Professors formed the March 9 advocacy group in 2004, organizing their first protest in 2005 against such practices. In 2010, the group won a lawsuit to forbid the presence of police on campus — a ruling that has been put to the test several times in the intervening years.
Cairo University professor Laila Soueif believes that the Office of Survey and Intelligence serves the same function in this process as the security officers on campuses. “They just renamed it,” she tells Mada Masr.
Hosseiny asserts that an official at the Higher Education Ministry told him the study abroad request form is sent to the General Intelligence Services, the National Security Agency and the Council of National Security, while a fourth copy is kept by the university.
“It is obvious that this office is in charge of sending these forms to these security bodies,” Hosseiny claims.
While the scope of the office’s powers do not appear to be a matter of public record, Saber points out that “Damanhour University openly says that it has an office with such powers and authorities.”
A job description available on the website of Damanhour University gives some clues as to the office’s function. The website states that responsibilities include, “giving an opinion concerning individuals nominated for travel abroad after inspecting the security profiling conducted by the Survey and Information Office at the Ministry of Higher Education.”