With Solon Simmons, Vice President Global Strategy and Professor, School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution
At George Mason University we teach our students the importance of being engaged with the world around them, of working hard and even taking risks to make a positive difference. This is the spirit behind a phrase with which our university has become associated, to strive to be not the best university in the world, but the best university for the world.
This is why we are deeply saddened and distraught that one of our alumni who we held as an example of engagement and social impact would be detained in Egypt on criminal charges and, according to many sources, not be afforded the standard of due process set by the international community.
Aya Mohamad Nabil Hijazi, a 2009 graduate from our School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, has been held prisoner in Egypt since May 1, 2014 in conditions that, according to her family, are inhumane and becoming ever more difficult for her to bear.
We don’t have all the facts about the case, but we know that the charges against Aya are not consistent with our experience with her as a student at George Mason. Moreover, those who have looked into this case find little evidence to support her ongoing detention.
According to a press release by Don Beyer, Congressman from Virginia’s 8th District:
“Aya Hijazi has been illegally detained in pre-trial detention on dubious charges for over two years. The Egyptian government should immediately release her and I urge the U.S. government to do everything in its power to secure her release. […] Aya’s continued detention violates legal standards set by the United Nations, the African Union, and Egypt’s own laws. Despite the extraordinary length of this pre-trial detention, the Egyptian government still cannot present any evidence against her. Aya should be free.”
The lurid depictions of Aya that are now commonplace in Egyptian media are not the story about Aya with which we, at Mason, are at all familiar. For example, one of her former Mason professors, Dr. Andrea Bartoli, who now serves as the dean of Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, described her as follows:
“I have very good memories of her because I had her in class when my students were breaking fast during Ramadan. It was an evening class and, of course, I would invite the students to eat in class after sunset and it was a nice thing. I remember that Aya had a keen sense of justice and she had a very vibrant, dedicated sense of right and wrong. She was committed, very present and I am sure she did well. I stayed in touch with her after and I recall that I wrote a letter of recommendation for her when she applied to study in Egypt. She was on the extreme liberal side of things and not on the side of the repressive regime or of radical religious elements like the Muslim Brotherhood. Aya was a good student who, perhaps, did not belong in the political context she found in Egypt. I wish her all the best.”
Another faculty member, Susan Hirsch, who directed the conflict analysis and resolution undergraduate program when Aya was at Mason, also describes Aya in very positive terms:
“Aya Hijazi in 2007 was among the very first students to pursue an undergraduate degree in conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University. Early on, she distinguished herself as an active participant in class discussion, a talented writer and speaker, and an energetic leader of student activities. Aya’s compassion for people whose basic needs were not being met, whether in the United States, Egypt, or elsewhere, motivated her to focus on social and economic inequality in some of her coursework. Engaging and confident, Aya left the impression that she was highly motivated to pursue peaceful and positive change for those less fortunate than herself.”
Those who knew Aya at Mason remember her fondly. She was an asset to our university when she was a student and remains an asset to our community as an alumna. At a minimum, we urge international authorities to step in and ensure that she be given a fair trial.
Ultimately, we hope to see her back home in the United States where she can again pursue her passion for global engagement.
Many other members of the Mason community knew Aya as well and would like to share their stories and experiences. If you would like to share a story about the Aya you know, please feel free to attach it to the comment section of this post.