Egypt has turned away an American scholar at the border for the first time ever, sending a strong message from the military government to the U.S. and American human rights groups. The New York Times reports:
The scholar, Michele Dunne, is a senior associate in the Middle East program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who spent 17 years as a specialist in the region for the State Department, with postings that included Cairo and Jerusalem as well as the National Security Council. She was traveling to Cairo for a conference organized by the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, a generally pro-government organization composed mainly of former Egyptian diplomats.
In a telephone interview on Saturday from the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, Ms. Dunne said that security officials at the Cairo airport had stopped her upon arrival late Friday night and held her for about six hours before putting her on a flight out of the country.
When she asked why she had been detained, she said, a security official at the airport told her, “No reason, but, Madame, you cannot access Egypt any more.”
We sympathize with Dunne, who has obviously been caught up in something much larger than her or her work. Her case is a specific instance of a general tension that exists whenever American scholars travel abroad (as indeed many of us at TAI have). Many American academics normally enjoy a kind of imperial privilege in writing about countries that value their relations with the U.S. These countries often give American scholars more room to write about sensitive topics than local scholars have. This is partly because American universities and scholars enjoy prestige around the world; professors in the U.S. have much more time to research and publish than their colleagues in most other countries and have much greater access to grants and foundations. At the same time, it is easier for them to get their work published in journals that are widely read outside academia. Foreign governments don’t want trouble, and so they often give Americans (and, to a lesser extent, other Westerners and scholars from rich countries) running room that locals don’t enjoy.To complicate things, U.S. academics can much more easily make their problems known to human rights groups, professional associations, and, above all, Congress and sympathetic colleagues in the State Department and Executive Branch. This can be a real factor when it comes to decisions about foreign aid, and so forth. In other words, American scholars are some of the most privileged people on earth compared to most of their foreign colleagues, especially those from the developing world.Though many U.S. academics don’t see this, to many government officials and nationalists in developing countries, this feels like a humiliating 21st-century version of the old system of “extraterritoriality.” In the 19th century, Western visitors—missionaries, scholars, businesspeople—were often protected from local laws by treaty. Blocking American scholars from Egypt will appall most Egyptian academics and civil liberty activists because it sends such a tough signal about what the government plans to do to its homegrown critics. But to many nationalists, the message will be somewhat different: Egypt’s government is no longer willing to let the U.S. humiliate it. U.S. citizens can’t come to Egypt and expect to be treated differently than the locals.For Egypt’s government, horrified by the specter of radical Islamism in Sinai, Libya, and Syria, invoking nationalism is part of what it needs to do to rally public opinion to its side. Cracking down on American scholars is one way to do that: it helps portray the Egyptian government as independent and strong—a message that resonates in the Arab world’s most nationalistic country.