Exams are stressful for any student, even under the best of circumstances. To press through finals season from behind bars is something most students simply could never imagine doing. But, according to journalist Jihad Abaza of online publication, Aswat Misriya, this is exactly what thousands of Egyptian students had to do earlier this year. As he reported, Egypt’s Ministry of the Interior released a shocking report in January announcing that 3,462 detained students would be “allowed” to take their exams inside prison.

Since coming to power, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al Sisi has detained an unprecedented number of students. Indefinite detention is, however, not the only horror facing these brave young people, who are also subject to torture while detained.

Amnesty International highlighted the case of one young Egyptian student, twenty-year-old Mohammed Hussein, whose was arrested for attending a protest while wearing a t-shirt reading “Nation Without Torture.” As of a few months ago, Mohammed had been in prison for more than two years, where he had been subjected to the very practices he had been protesting a few years before.  

On June 8, the international advocacy network, Scholars at Risk (SAR), publicly recognized the courage of Egypt’s detained students, as well as their teachers and other academics. The organization, which advocates for academic freedoms around the world, announced that its 2016 Courage to Think Defender Award would go to detained Egyptian students and academics. Because these recipients are physically unable to attend the award ceremony on June 9 in Montreal, Canada, SAR has selected various student representatives, whose work promotes academic freedom around the globe, to receive the award on behalf of the detainees.

SAR’s move comes at a time of increasing state-sanctioned violence in Egypt – a reality reflected in the organization’s press release announcing this year’s award winners: 

Over the past several years, SAR has observed an overwhelming crackdown on Egypt’s higher education community, including the reported use of violence, wrongful prosecutions and imprisonment, professional retaliation and travel restrictions against scholars and students across the country. According to data obtained by the Egyptian NGO, Association for Free Thought and Expression, over 2,000 university students and professors have been detained by security forces since July 2013.

Of course, Egypt is not the only country where intellectual freedom is under fire. Daniel Munier, a Program Officer at SAR, spoke with Muftah about the threats to scholars worldwide, as well as SAR’s decision to highlight the Egyptian case. “Scholars and students across the world, including in Turkey, Venezuela and Myanmar, among others, have faced mounting pressures and have received due attention in the press,” he told Muftah. “However, it has not been until relatively recently that the world is recognizing the dire state of academic freedom in Egypt, where the number of victims is most staggering.”

The Courage to Think Defender Award is a challenge to what Munier described as “a grave threat” facing Egyptian intellectuals. “Bestowing the 2016 Courage to Think Defender award is just one way of keeping the spotlight on wrongfully detained scholars and students in Egypt, of letting them know that they are not forgotten,” he said. “This year’s award tells the Egyptian authorities that these students and scholars must be released and that the university space must be a safe, secure and free environment for all Egyptians to think, share and question ideas.”

As the political situation in Egypt continues to deteriorate, spotlighting the Sisi regime’s deplorable tactics and giving due recognition to its victims is the least we can do.

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