Police return to Egypt universities sparks alarm

Ayat Al-Tawy, Tuesday 25 Feb 2014

A Monday court ruling allowing the return of interior ministry officers to university grounds stirs anxiety over a revival of oppressive tactics rife before the 2011 revolt

2010 cairo uni protests
A student holds a banner while facing Egyptian riot police during an anti-government protest by university students in front of the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education in Cairo, Egypt Monday, Oct. 18, 2010 (Photo: AP)

A Cairo court on Monday ruled that police once again be permanently deployed on campuses, three years after university grounds became off-limits to a body notorious for its heavy-handedness.

The court order came in the wake of widespread disorder gripping universities amid near daily protests, mostly held by Islamists, since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi last July and up until the autumn semester ended a month ago.

Numerous students and professors have voiced dismay at Monday's decision, decrying it as an attempt to curtial freedom and expecting it will further exacerbate simmering tensions at universities.

"We fought for dozens of years until we officially ejected police from universities," Al-Azhar University Professor Mahmoud Khafagy told Ahram Online. "Now the clock is turned back to the days before the [2011] revolution," he said in reference to the 25 January popular revolt fuelled by the police brutality and lack of freedom under the 30-year rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptian authorities have for decades kept a tight rein on universities, usual activism hotbeds, to stifle opposition. Yet police role on campuses – embodied in the prying eyes of the security apparatus – had long remained covert.

In 1981, the government officially affiliated, for the first time, the once civil university guards to the interior ministry – the body responsible for the police and strongly reviled for human rights abuses.

Three decades later, a 2010 court ruling – prompted by a legal action brought by a group of academics and professors – barred police from university grounds -- a move that prosecutors at the time said was meant to "affirm the independence of universities and bolster their freedom."

Khafagy billed the police comeback a return to what he described as the "spying" of students and professors. He cliamed that police had never been "overtly" involved in abuses throughout his decades-long academic career as a member of the staff as it has of late.

"Only in recent months have we seen armoured vehicles on university grounds, arrests made inside labs and classes, and students being shot on campus," he said.

Legal Challenge

Turmoil spread to universities across the country following Morsi's overthrow and an ensuing crackdown on his supporters that has killed hundreds, mostly Islamists, and thrown thousands of others behind bars.

Frequent protests by pro-Morsi students and others condemning the clampdown have often devolved into clashes with the security forces.

Several students have been killed on campuses nationwide and hundreds others incarcerated. Dozens have been sentenced to jail for staging what authorities deem illegal protests under a new law that bans all but police-sanctioned demonstrations.

Some analysts have debated the legality of Monday's ruling, arguing the case to be beyond the jurisdiction of the Court for Urgent Matters which issued the verdict.

"The decision violates the 2010 ruling by the High Administrative Court, the only body with authority over the matter," said Egyptian lawyer and director of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression Emad Mubarak, claiming that only administrative courts can appeal the 2010 ruling.

"But most of what is taking place in Egypt at the moment is illegal; authorities are scrambling around for any legal base, even if senseless, to rely on," he said.

Monday's court ruling comes after the government, citing security concerns, twice postponed the start of the new semester – now scheduled for 8 March.

But the controversial decison appeared to have found favour amongst some.

Ahmed Zeraa, media advisor of Al-Azhar University - scene of most of the turbulence in recent months - said the return of police was much needed considering the disarray rocking campuses.

Zeraa, nevertheless, made it clear that police should not interfere in the appointment of staff members and promotions – matters critics say were long regulated by the country's security apparatus.

Last week, interim President Adly Mansour amended a law to allow university heads to expel student protesters.

Mansour said students could be thrown out for jeopardising the university's educational process, targeting facilities, proceedings or exams, attacking people, public or private property on campus, and for inciting or participating in violence.

Last November, at the height of clashes at Al-Azhar and other universities nationwide, the government authorised police to enter campuses without prior consent from administration if facilities or students come under threat.

"The [permenant] return of police means we are back to square one," Cairo University junior and student activist Mohamed El-Shafie said. "We will again put up a fight at universities and take legal action against the state until our universities are independent," he asserted.

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