Egypt's public universities started the 2017/18 academic year on Saturday and Sunday with a new tradition of saluting the Egyptian flag, aimed at boosting patriotic sentiment, following a recent decision by the Higher Coucil of Universities (HCU).
The decision was announced last Thursday by the minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, following a meeting of the HCU.
The universities of Cairo, Ain Shams were among those saluting the flag and singing the national anthem on Sunday.
Several universities in Upper Egypt also took part, including Beni Suef and Fayoum, along with the University of Zagazig and Kafr El-Sheikh in the Delta.
In a phone call to the private TV channel DMC on Saturday evening, Abdel Ghaffar said that "the new tradition is going to be implemented only on the first day of school at universities."
Saluting the flag is mandatory for all pupils in both public and private schools in Egypt, from primary through secondary levels.
Videos from several universities showed university officials, professors, military representatives, and groups of students and university scouts inagurating the new tradition.
In Zagazig University in the Delta governorate of Sharqiya, students lined up at the ceremony holding signs identifying their respective faculties.
Abdel Ghaffar said: "This is not the only activity to raise the sense of belonging to Egypt among the students, because there are many plans for religious, cultural, artistic and political activities, as well as field trips to visit the country's national projects."
The HCU's decision has sparked spirited discussion, with some skeptical that a salute-the-flag exercise can really boost patriotism, while others argue that such ceremonies fail to address more pressing problems in an embattled education system.
Abdel Ghaffar told Al-Ahram daily newspaper on Saturday that "there will be no space for partisan work at the universities."
There have been no active student unions in Egyptian public universities since their dissolution in 2015. In addition, in 2014, some university heads suspended the activities of societies linked to political parties.
Plans to boost security at university campuses have also been activated, with an increased security personnel presence, the minister said on Thursday.
In addition, Abdel Ghaffar discussed several further measures to enforce discipline at universities, such as drug tests for students.
He said the ministry is willing to offer financial assistance to those students of limited means as well as free medical tests and treatment to students, especially those who have the hepatitis C virus.
Egypt has one of the highest rates of hepatitis C infection in the world, and has adopted a national strategy to eliminate the virus. According to 2015 statistics, some 15 million Egyptians – out of a population of 91 million – carried the disease, or around 22 percent of the population. In 2016, the health ministry reported a 96 percent cure rate nationwide, resulting from an intensive treatment programme over two years. The ministry has vowed to completely eliminate the disease in Egypt by 2021.
The number of students enrolled in public universities and educational institutes for the new academic year is estimated at 2.5 million.