British protestors in 2015 with a sign depicting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with Mickey Mouse ears. An Egyptian law student was sentenced to three years in prison for sharing a similar image of Sisi on social media. (Credit: Alisdare Hickson / Flickr)

UK universities face criticism over proposed satellite campuses in increasingly authoritarian Egypt

By August 27, 2018

Last week, over 200 academics signed on to a statement questioning the wisdom of 11 universities in the United Kingdom that sent a delegation to Cairo — with the backing of the British government — to discuss the possibility of opening satellite campuses in Egypt, which is currently experiencing a significant wave of repression under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

According to Universities UK, which calls itself “the collective voice of 136 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland” and sent the delegation, the venture is intended to establish “partnerships, collaborative research, student and staff exchange programmes, joint funding applications, and capacity building” between UK and Egyptian universities.

But, as a number of concerned critics suggest, this campus expansion would pose a risk to free expression:

[T]he government officials and university managers seem to have forgotten that only two years ago, Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge PhD student, was abducted, tortured and murdered while undertaking research in Cairo. Giulio was one of many students and academics who have been arrested, tortured, jailed and killed in recent years in Egypt, in the context of a much wider campaign of repression targeting the political opposition, trade unions, civil society, independent media, and the legal profession.

We question the wisdom and legitimacy of this move to do business as usual with an authoritarian regime that systematically attacks research, education and academic freedom. We do not believe that the universities represented on UUK’s recent delegation to Egypt can guarantee the safety or freedom of expression of their academic staff or students. We suspect this is just a cynical branding exercise: selling degrees with the imprimatur of a UK university, while remaining silent about the disappearance of academic critics and attacks on Egyptian students’ right to learn without fear.

We welcome collaboration with our Egyptian academic colleagues, but we refuse to collude in masking human rights abuses in order to make short-term profits in the global education “market”.

Their statement voices important concerns. After all, a university that promises academic freedom and freedom of expression to its community members in the UK might find it quite difficult to follow through on those same practices in a country where loosely defined “media outlets” are subject to strict censorship laws; the spread of what the government deems “false news” is criminalized; and an oppressive “cybercrime” law severely limits internet freedom and information access.

The questions Universities UK should be asking itself are pressing, but they’re nothing new; American universities have faced similar challenges and moral considerations as well. New York University’s United Arab Emirates campus has encountered waves of criticism since it was announced in 2007 — at the time, then-president John Sexton claimed that the Abu Dhabi campus would provide the “standards of academic freedom” found at NYU’s main campus. A number of NYU faculty members have challenged the validity of that claim.

In 2015, airline representatives stopped professor Andrew Ross from flying to Abu Dhabi and blamed “security reasons,” but Ross believed the true cause to be his criticism of the use of migrant workers to build NYU’s UAE campus.

And just weeks before the start of the 2017 fall semester, Mohamad Bazzi and Arang Keshavarzian, two NYU professors slated to teach at the university’s Abu Dhabi campus, learned their visa applications were denied by UAE officials, who failed to offer a justification for the decision. However, both suspected their status as a Shiite Muslims to be the basis.

After the rejection of Bazzi and Keshavarzian, a majority of faculty from NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and Gallatin School of Individualized Study announced that they would not teach at the Abu Dhabi campus until faculty members could be confident that they would not be arbitrarily rejected from the UAE.

Addressing his treatment by the UAE and NYU’s “largely worthless” promises of academic freedom, Bazzi wrote last year:

If N.Y.U. continues to accept Abu Dhabi’s largess, it needs to acknowledge the limitations that the emirate’s security and foreign policies impose on academic freedom.

At the very least, the university should admit that it has bought into a political system that actively discriminates against members of a religious minority because of an overwhelming fear of Iran and hatred of Shiites. This is far from the free movement of people and ideas to which N.Y.U.’s leaders claim to aspire.

As Bazzi and Universities UK’s critics point out, international collaboration is a vital aspect of scholarship, but universities should be careful not to promise what they cannot deliver on satellite campuses.