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[ALGIERS] A demand by the Algerian government that academics obtain approval before participating in conferences abroad is meeting with growing national and international protest.

The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MESRS) issued a circular letter in May voicing its concerns that academics — including scientists — may be led at such meetings to "take positions contrary to national interests". Therefore it wants to decide for itself whether scientists should participate in any conference "in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs".

"Some scientific conferences are set to lead researchers to express positions that oppose the state's policies," Rabia Saray the sub-director of External Training and Integration at the ministry, told SciDev.Net, explaining that the circular was enacted on May 18th after diplomatic reports stated that, during a seminar abroad, Algerian professors had voiced opinions that "compromised national interests".

The MESRS circular followed an international conference in Morocco that discussed issues related to the Western Sahara conflict, a sensitive issue that has inflamed Algerian-Moroccan relationships for decades.

"[The bill] is not aimed at restricting researchers' movements," Saray said. "It only concerns few events."

At the end of June three professors from Mouloud Mammeri University in Tizi Ouzou were banned from participating in two scientific conferences in Morocco. "We apologise and are sorry for not giving you any reasons," reads the letter they received.

Visiting researchers and professors have also been banned from attending local seminars.

And, in May, the second Maghreb Forum on Democratic Processes and The Building of a Modern State was cancelled by MESRS two days before its inauguration in the University of Algiers. No justifications were submitted.

"This is a serious violation of the freedom of movement and expression of academics and researchers," said Daho Djerbal, a professor of modern history at the University of Algiers-Bouzaréah.

"We demand a separation between science and politics."

Djerbal is among 350 professors and researchers who have so far signed an online petition begun at the end of June, opposing the circular.

Abdel Malek Rahmani, coordinator of the National Council for Higher Education Professors (CNES), said that the circular may lead to "confusion and arbitrary decisions".

He said that the petition signatories would decide on how to proceed if the MESRS does not revoke its decision by September, when universities re-open.

US and European academics have also called for Algerian authorities to revoke the decision, the Algerian press reported.

The World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies said the decision was an impediment to the "freedom of movement and expression that are basic to scientific research". The Arizona-based Middle East Studies Association of North America, said it was "a serious violation to the essence of the university as a space for the free exchange of ideas and information," according to El Watan.