On Ahmad Arafa's tidy desk in the south Cairo suburb of Hilwan sits what might be the most controversial master's dissertation in Egypt today, bound in green, collecting dust and waiting to be defended.
Four years ago, one of Mr. Arafa's two supervisors abruptly announced that she would refuse to referee the work's defense, declaring that his linguistic analysis of the language used in the Koran went against both "the grain and the spirit of Islam."
"She said that I was actually attacking Islam and corrupting the religion," Mr. Arafa says, incredulously. "And then she called me an apostate."
Since then, Mr. Arafa, a faithful Muslim, has been derided by Islamic scholars across Egypt. His work has been branded un-Islamic by the Grand Mufti himself, the highest religious-law official in the country. And the government-appointed administrators at Hilwan University, where he was pursuing a linguistics degree, have blocked him from defending his work.
"This should be an academic scandal, but nobody was willing to stand up to the religious men," says Mr. Arafa, who has spent the past four years working as a tutor. "Nobody!"
His academic nightmare offers a glimpse into one of the many ways in which the Egyptian government and the campus administrators it appoints are slowly and persistently squeezing the life out of universities here. Classroom discussions are monitored, faculty appointments and academic research are scrutinized, and faculty participation in outside activities is vetted by government authorities and their appointees.
The government's goal, academics and human-rights activists say, is to stifle anything that could challenge the status quo in Egypt, which has been ruled by President Hosni Mubarak since 1981.
Fearful of inflaming the growing ranks of Islamists here, Mr. Mubarak's quasi-military regime has also reined in any campus activities that might offend religious conservatives. Professors are banned from teaching a wide range of books and discussing controversial topics like sex and religion, and are often prevented as well from conducting research projects that might be construed as blasphemous.
"Professors know that there's a limit to what they can get away with here," says Joel Beinin, director of Middle East studies at the American University in Cairo. "And when people think that, they often pull themselves up short before that limit because they don't want to make a mistake and be over the line."
But Mr. Arafa didn't pull back, even when the dean strongly suggested he make changes in his dissertation to satisfy his supervisor's religious hang-ups. After the defense, the dean said, Mr. Arafa could restore his original argument before the dissertation was published.
"You want me to betray academia and betray my profession and to betray knowledge? I'm not going to do that," he says he told the dean. "I want my dissertation to be evaluated and signed off on the way I've researched it and the way I'm convinced it should be. This is a work of my conviction."
And so the dissertation continues to sit on Mr. Arafa's desk.
A Tarnished Reputation
Egypt has long been an intellectual and academic center of the Arab world.
The famed Library of Alexandria, often described as one of the earliest seats of learning and the birthplace of Western science, was founded in Egypt in the third century BC. Al-Azhar University, in Cairo, is one of the world's oldest higher-education institutions and a center of Sunni Islamic scholarship.
When Cairo University first opened its doors, a century ago, it became a model for the secular, independent research universities that soon began to sprout up across the Arab world.
In 1962, President Gamal Abdel Nasser made university education free to all Egyptians, giving the children of peasants the access that had once been available only to the country's wealthiest families.
In recent years, Egyptian higher education has continued to draw international attention, but for starkly different reasons. Human-rights monitors and academics regularly complain about infringements on academic freedom.
Perhaps the best-known case is that of Nasr Hamed Abuzeid, a professor of Arabic literature. In 1993, after 20 years at Cairo University, he was denied a promotion to professor. Islamists condemned his Koranic scholarship as blasphemous and had him declared an apostate in the national courts. When the Islamists used the courts to force him to divorce his wife — their Islamic marriage was annulled because he was no longer considered a Muslim — he fled the country.
"Such widespread abuses stifle debate and the free exchange of information, thus preventing Egyptian students from receiving a quality education and Egyptian scholars from advancing knowledge in their fields," concluded a 2005 investigation by Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group, into the state of academic freedom in Egypt.
The government's strategy is to stop potential threats before they develop, by placing proxies throughout the country's university campuses, say academics and human rights activists.
Security officers are assigned to each department to monitor faculty and student activities. They are quick to crack down on demonstrations, often violently, and frequently throw faculty and student activists in jail. In December 2006, for example, security forces arrested more than 140 students affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood at Al-Azhar University after they staged a demonstration to protest the university's conduct during student elections earlier in the year.
State security agents vet all faculty appointments and promotions. They bar any student with political aspirations from running for student office. They even determine which students receive campus housing, to ensure that political activists lack the opportunity to influence their roommates.
At Cairo University, gangs of security men, armed with piercing whistles, roam the palm-tree-lined sidewalks and teeming quadrangles, breaking up students gathered in groups as small as three and four.
On one recent afternoon, students hanging around the square outside the law school spotted the guards and began to move along before the whistles came out. Others waited knowingly, then took off just as the guards reached them.
What many might see as casual meetings, the guards see as potential problems: Even the smallest and most informal gathering could morph into a protest.
"They're afraid, always afraid of anywhere in the country boiling over," says Laila Souief, a mathematics professor at Cairo University and a member of the Ninth of March Committee for the Independence of Universities, an informal group of professors that fights against government interference in university life. "And any organized activity on campus, whether it's Islamic or otherwise, they see as a threat."
Ms. Souief cracks open a dust-caked window and turns on the wobbly ceiling fan to circulate the air in her office. Her heavy wooden desk is littered with coffee cups, stacks of ungraded papers, and an ancient desktop computer.
"I specialize in algebra," she says, leaning back in her broken desk chair. "All sorts of math, really. When you teach undergraduates here, you teach a bit of everything."
That is hardly the kind of work likely to bring down — or even criticize — President Mubarak's regime, but Ms. Souief is subject to the same government controls as her colleagues working in fields more vulnerable to controversy, like political science and Islamic studies.
Government officials have "this urge to grab power. They want a say in appointments, they want a say in budget allocation, they want to be in charge of all the power in universities," says Ms. Souief. "And it's the crazy side effects that are most terrible, really."
The key vehicle of government control at each of Egypt's 12 state universities is the university council, comprising deans and vice deans appointed by the minister of higher education. Each council is led by the university president, who is appointed by Mr. Mubarak himself.
These powerful councils can, and often do, overrule lower-level, faculty-elected departmental councils. When Ms. Souief's department wants to make a routine academic change in the syllabus, say, breaking a course called "Linear Algebra and Geometry" into two courses, the decision must be discussed and approved by the elected departmental and faculty councils, the university council, and the intrauniversity council, which includes the presidents and rectors of all of the state universities. Finally, to make the change official, the minister of higher education must issue a ministerial decree.
"It's craziness," says Ms. Souief. "Purely academic decisions have to go through this stupid runaround. It ends up taking about three years to do this kind of thing — and by the time the change is approved, you're ready to make another change."
Professors like Ms. Souief have figured out ways around the bureaucracy by giving courses generic names like "Math 1" and defining course syllabi as vaguely as possible.
"But still," she says, "because they want to be in charge of all the power in the university, the side effects poison the entire atmosphere."
Those who defend the government's actions argue that it has a right to place whatever controls its wants on universities because they are, after all, financed by the government.
"The government, in a way, owns the universities," says Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, a think tank that is often sympathetic to the government. "It's all financed, fueled, from the national budget, so the government must be able to approve things."
Neither the administration of Cairo University nor the Ministry of Higher Education responded to requests for an interview for this article.
'They Suspect Everyone'
The government's mistrust of higher education has some basis in history. Students and professors have been at the forefront of every antigovernment movement that has swept Egypt in the 20th century. Academe represents a potent political threat: The country's public universities are home to some 1.1 million students and 30,000 faculty members. Cairo University alone claims an enrollment of about 200,000.
As a result, "the government here operates under a security mentality where they suspect everyone, every human work," says Bahey El Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "They assume they can control everything by penetrating everything."
A 26-year-old emergency law allows the government to detain people without trial and to try civilians in military courts. It also prohibits gatherings of more than five people and curbs free speech and association.
Political protests on college campuses are consequently rare. An undergraduate drew national attention last month when he stood and heckled Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif during a speech, calling on him to release people imprisoned during a recent strike. The crowd, mainly students, applauded, but the rest of the event was abruptly canceled and campus security officials kept the student in custody for several hours, according to a newspaper.
Ms. Souief, the Cairo math professor, says she is frustrated by the fact that only a handful of professors attempt to fight the government's restrictions on the campus.
"There's nothing in the law that says I can't be an activist," she says. "You can't lose your job. And sometimes I just don't understand why professors continue to bow to them."
It is true that professors can't be fired simply for speaking out. But those who do speak out, activists say, won't be promoted and must complete their teaching duties to the letter. Otherwise they are harassed, censured, or even fired, the activists say.
And so most professors in Egypt keep their heads down.
"The overall result is that the great majority of students who graduate from Egyptian universities, essentially, don't know how to think," says Mr. Beinin, of the American University in Cairo. "They don't even know what it means to think, because they're never given permission to."
Ray of Light
Mr. Arafa, the master's-degree candidate, wants to change all that, which is why, four years on, he is still fighting for the opportunity to defend the original version of his dissertation on the use of language in the Koran.
"They keep giving me this excuse that there are some red lines that you just can't cross," he says. "But I think there should be no lines at all in academic research. We have a duty and an obligation to examine things in new ways and to come up with new ideas."
Mr. Arafa has pressed his case with several professors as well as with deans and two successive presidents of Hilwan University. He has scoured Cairo and assembled a handful of scholars willing to vouch for him. And he has found a new supervisor, less dogmatic in his views.
Finally, last September, he got a lucky break: Hilwan University's new president was willing to consider his case.
"He said he would respect knowledge and allowed me to launch an appeal," says Mr. Arafa. This month that appeal was accepted. Mr. Arafa is scheduled to defend his thesis this week.