Egypt rights group challenges new university students' charter

Reem Gehad , Sunday 20 Jan 2013

Association for Freedom of Thought & Expression files lawsuit against new students' charter, describing document as 'unconstitutional' and 'unrepresentative' of Egypt's vast student body

Fatma Serag, lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, speaking about articles in the charter. (Photo: Reem Gehad)

The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), a Cairo-based rights group, has filed a lawsuit in Egypt's administrative court against Prime Minister Hisham Qandil's recent approval of a charter for Egyptian university students, the group announced at a Sunday press conference.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, says the students' charter should have been approved by President Mohamed Morsi and not Qandil, according to Article 162 of the national constitution.

This article does not allow the prime minister to issue "regulations for the enforcement of laws." Article 196 of the university's regulation law, the AFTE notes, states that the president represents the approving authority.

The lawsuit, lodged in the name of Helwan University student and AFTE member Mohamed Nagi, was raised against President Mohamed Morsi, PM Qandil and Minister for Higher Education Mostafa Mosaad.

At Sunday's press conference, the AFTE also expressed its dissatisfaction with how the charter was written.

"The Egyptian Student Union (ESU) [a national student body established in 2011] was dominated by Muslim Brotherhood representatives at universities who took control of the charter-drafting process," Nagi said.

"The ESU sat for five meetings to discuss the draft and no other student political groups took part," he added.

Several political groups, especially Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists, expressed their displeasure with the situation and demanded that a student referendum be held to approve or reject the charter.

However, the ESU refused the proposal and instead tabled other suggestions, including conducting workshops that would include other student groups in the drafting process and presenting the document to rights organisations.

"These demands were never fulfilled and several student forces boycotted the process completely," Nagi said. "The charter was written mainly by students from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Nour Party, the Reform and Development Party [the political wing of Egypt's Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya] and the 6 April youth movement (Ahmed Maher Front)."

Last October, a final draft of the bylaws was issued and sent to Egypt's Supreme Council of Universities and the higher education ministry.

"The ministry, too, is not objective in this regard," said AFTE Assistant Manager Kholoud Saber. "It has ignored the political dispute that this charter has created at universities."

"Even when the ministry called for a meeting with student leaders, many students from the opposition were not invited and results of the meeting were not announced," Saber added.

Not only is the AFTE critical of the issue's legal aspects, but it also takes issue with several of the charter's articles.

"Article 318 puts restrictions on students' right to organise into groups other than official student unions," Fatma Serag, a lawyer for the AFTE, said.

This article, she explained, describes student unions at Egyptian universities as "legitimate organisations" through which students might make their voices heard.

Serag was also critical of Article 331, which states that the Student Union Council must be notified of any student activity three days beforehand. The council, with the agreement of at least two-thirds of its members, also has the right to prohibit the activity in question if it does not comply with the union's objectives as stated in the charter.

"This list of [approximately ten] objectives is phrased in a vague manner that could be manipulated if the council disapproves of a certain activity," Serag said. "Also, if a certain political force is dominant in the council, it could easily use the two-thirds majority rule to its own benefit."

AFTE members consider the charter "unconstitutional" and "unrepresentative" of all Egyptian university students, saying that, even if it is legally approved by President Morsi, they would continue to press for the desired changes.

ESU members were not available for comment on the issue. 

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