In the middle of summer, the University of Rome La Sapienza published a press release to celebrate its “performances” in the Shanghai ranking, placing itself at the top of Italian universities. However, the university did not react to a July 26 letter, co-signed by more than 280 academics, asking for the revocation of the honorary doctorate awarded to Tunisian President Kais Saied, because of his authoritarian drift and his role in the serious abuses against Black migrants in Tunisia, causing many deaths.
This scandal, however, is not the first: in 2004, La Sapienza Faculty of Archeology awarded an honorary doctorate to Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian dictator and war criminal Bashar al-Assad. The official ceremony was held in the ancient Syrian city of Ebla. The first lady received the doctorate from the hands of Paolo Matthiae, head of the department of archeology and history of art at La Sapienza, responsible for excavations in the city of Ebla, since 1964. It is not known whether this title has been revoked or whether it is still conferred on the first lady. But recent information from the Syrian news agency SANA reveals that Bashar al-Assad granted Paolo Matthiae “The Syrian Order of Merit, Hors Classe” on June 5, 2023.
The presentation of the honorary title to the Tunisian president took place on June 16, 2021, a month before his coup against the only Arab democracy, although the press had already revealed his project to establish a “constitutional dictatorship” as early as May 24. Moreover, his reactionary positions are public knowledge. This includes his marked opposition to women’s freedom, his refutation of gender equality in matters of inheritance, and his hostility to homosexuality. Even if one wishes to give the benefit of the doubt to La Sapienza at the time when it decided on this honorary title, it is impossible today to ignore President Saied’s exactions against black migrants, nor his authoritarian drift.
The Dean of the Faculty of Law, Oliviero Diliberto, also leader of the Party of Italian Communists and former justice minister, who was particularly “honored” to bestow an honorary doctorate on President Saied, said the ceremony was a “symbol of brotherhood between two illustrious and very ancient civilizations”. This sign of “brotherhood” recalls another, sent on August 8, 2011, five months after the outbreak of the war in Syria, to the Syrian Communist Party, a loyal ally of the regime.
Honoring a despot or his loyal allies is not a brotherly act towards his victims.
It is also remarkable that Diliberto and his colleagues did not express any criticism of President Saied’s recent memorandum of understanding on migration with the European Union, at the initiative of Council President Meloni, an agreement strongly condemned by international human rights organizations.