Feb 19
2020

What does the arrest of Patrick George Zaky tell us about the state of academic freedom around the world?

The article appeared first in Security Praxis, 14 February 2020.

© Security Praxis

Nearly four years after the brutal murder of Giulio Regeni, a doctoral student conducting dissertation fieldwork in Cairo, the Egyptian authorities continue to repress intellectual life for both students, academics and activists.

The arrest and torture of the Egyptian student and activists Patrick George Zaky, enrolled at the University of Bologna, reflect further erosion of academic freedom in Egypt. It is not the first time that the government is arresting students without confirming the reasons; in recent years, the Egyptian government has taken unprecedented measures of censorship, surveillance, and repression against activists and academics. For example, ‘between 2013 and 2016, over 1100 students were arrested, 1000 were expelled or subjected to disciplinary actions, 65 were tried by military courts, and 21 students were extra judicially killed’.[2] According to the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), there is a surge in legal pressures on the university space, which includes: arrests, violence, travel bans as well as disciplinary actions targeting members of the higher education community.[3]

Egypt is not the only case in the world exhibiting deteriorating signs of academic freedom, other authoritarian states are following similar steps to purge their academic communities and any form of dissent deemed to represent a threat to the regime. Following the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016, mass repression against the academic community has been carried out in Turkey, using dubious allegations of links to terrorism or associations to the Fethulla Gulen movement.[4] In 2018, the arrest of the Durham PhD student, Matthew Hedges in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the charges of spying and more recently of Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal, both researchers at Sciences Po who have been detained in Iran since 2019, are further examples of political backlash against academics and students.[5] Increasingly authoritarian states are strengthening their grip on independent scholarship by either conducting arrest on academic critics or imposing restrictions on activities which are not aligned with the regime’s vision.  In January 2020, The Higher School of Economics, in Moscow, introduced restrictions on activities which ‘do not positively contribute to university reputation’ and prohibit any political or human rights activism. Violation of these regulations is now a disciplinary offense that can lead to expulsion.[6] Additionally, there are shifting trends in student mobility, previously autocrats were keen to send their students to study at overseas universities to promote economic development and channel authoritarian rule outwardly, nowadays, student mobility is increasingly seen as a threat to the regime. [7] As the events in the Arab Spring demonstrate, in the age of globalisation, the populations abroad have a significant voice in the politics of their home states. As such, home state governments  have started policing that privilege, as student mobility can backfire and produce counter-effects; students might learn and adapt to the democratic values of their host states or might seek to change the politics of their home states and exercise a transnational voice by demanding reforms from their government during their stay abroad. Such actions represent a potential threat to the regime’s stability, in response authoritarian states resolved to restrict citizens’ movement abroad by tightening travel policies or imposing travel bans.[8]

Such repressive patterns pose direct threats to intellectual life but also deprives individuals of exercising their fundamental liberties. The decision to supress critical voices in the academic field and beyond forced many scholars and regime critics to flee their home states and live in exile.

Yet, the persecutions of academics in authoritarian states have consequences far beyond their territorial borders. Many of our Western academic institutions are enabling such repressive authoritarian practices to take place. In the past decade, leading universities in the West have embarked on a programme of developing academic exchanges and formal partnerships with authoritarian regimes. In times of austerity and significant budget cuts to public expenditure on higher education, academic institutions increasingly rely on overseas funding. In the United Kingdom (UK) alone such a source of revenue formed a sixth of research income in 2017-2018.[9] This situation exposes academics and students to pressures and vulnerabilities from their donor countries, steering academic debate and research away from sensitive topics. Not only are academic debates exposed to censorship from the outside; Western academic institutions have sometimes found themselves complicit to the fabrication or mystification of scientific evidence in cases where it contrasts with one regime’s official narratives. In 2017, Cambridge University Press blocked a number of articles published by China Quarterly to comply with the Beijing authorities’ requests – these articles being on subjects such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Cultural Revolution, and the conflicts in China’s border area.[10] As this example demonstrates, self-censorship is becoming increasingly widespread, with scholars and institutions fearing to speak and engage in critical research against their donors. The offshoring of Western campuses to authoritarian countries –from China to Uzbekistan and the UAE further makes universities vulnerable to such pressures.

By cultivating international collaboration with authoritarian regimes and turning a blind eye to a country’s domestic issues related to human rights and academic freedom, Western universities are acquiescing and reinforcing authoritarian practices. The association of authoritarian states with Western universities, which position them as a honorary Western nation, helps autocrats to soften their image abroad and almost forget their human rights violations.

As academics working in universities we are brought to think, perhaps optimistically, about universities being a space for critical thinking and free speech. One of the core goals of universities is to educate and gain a better understanding of the world in which we are living. Yet without freedom of expressions such goals are doomed to crumble.

How should we then prevent the erosion of liberal education and democratic values in our Western societies, while at the same time fostering an environment free of intimidation and harassment?

Perhaps, one way of addressing the current shortcomings is to establish a code of conduct between universities and their external partners. Such a code should define the nature of international collaboration based on free speech and absence of any kind of threats and intimidation. Additionally, universities should establish more transparent framework of financial reporting over foreign donations and other cultural and academic partnerships. Such steps would enable universities to take a stand on their political or moral foundations and protecting their integrity against undue foreign influence. It should not be left to individual academics to uphold such standards; universities also have the responsibility to defend and protect their academic freedoms. Unless such concrete actions are taken, cases such as Patrick George Zaky would continue to multiply.


[2] Mohamed Nagy, Wesam Atta and Amira Abdelhamid, Besieged Universities, SAIH and AFTE, March 2017, wn, Egyptian students fear for their future, Reuters, June 2016, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/egypt-students/; Amy Austin Holmes and Sahar Aziz, Egypt’s Lost Academic Freedom, Carnegie, January 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/78210

[3] Mohamed Abdel Salam, The quarterly report on the state of freedom of expression in Egypt, AFTE, March 2017, https://afteegypt.org/wp-content/uploads/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%B9-%D8%B3%D9%86%D9%88%D9%8A-2017.pdf

[4] HRW, Turkey: Government Targeting Academics, May 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/05/14/turkey-government-targeting-academics

[5] BBC, Matthew Hedges: Durham student charged with UAE spying, October 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-tyne-45871581

[6] Students of The Higher School of Economics, Call for international solidarity with HSE community, https://doxajournal.ru/uni/intersolidarity_letter

[7] Adele Del Sordi. 2018. Sponsoring student mobility for development and authoritarian stability: Kazakhstan’s Bolashak programme, Globalizations, 15:2, 215-231

[8] Gerasimos Tsourapas, A Tightening Grip Abroad: Authoritarian Regimes Target Their Emigrant and Diaspora Communities, MPI, August 2019, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/authoritarian-regimes-target-their-emigrant-and-diaspora-communities

[9] Editorial, The Guardian view on academia and autocracies: stand firm, The Guardian, November 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/06/the-guardian-view-on-academia-and-autocracies-stand-firm

[10] Maev Kennedy and Tom Phillips, Cambridge University Press backs down over China censorship, The Guardian, August 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/aug/21/cambridge-university-press-to-back-down-over-china-censorship