Al-Azhar University: Behind student lines on a tense protest day

Ayat Al-Tawy , Thursday 31 Oct 2013

Ahram Online spent the day in the midst of the turmoil at Egypt's top Islamic institution after an Islamist demo sparks violence and police enter premises off-limit to security forces for 3 years

Egyptian security forces inside Al-Azhar university in Cairo, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013 (Photo: AP)

Emotions were running high Wednesday afternoon at Egypt's top Islamic university, hours after students supporting toppled president Mohamed Morsi raided an administrative building, prompting police to set foot on university grounds.

The violence at Al-Azhar, the ancient seat of Sunni-Islamic learning, highlights mounting tensions at universities across the country since the beginning of the academic year in September. As authorities continue a two-month crackdown on Islamists since Morsi's demise, largely crippling their street movements, pro-Morsi protests have shifted onto college campuses.

As tens of students took part in a march through the male-only campus, protesters – some masked – stormed and ransacked the main administrative – whose walls, like most others on campus, are daubed with anti-military slogans, graffiti of detained colleagues, and the Brotherhood four-finger Rabaa sign.

Dozens of protesters in front of the four-storey building cheered while those inside threw out the contents of torn documents and chairs.

But many students at the scene insisted those raiding the building were outsiders.

"We have been protesting here for two weeks. If we wanted to vandalise, we could have," senior student Ahmed Azaz told Ahram Online.

"They search us thoroughly everyday and ask for our ID cards, but today there wasn't any sort of inspection at the gates," third-year student Anas Ahmed said.

Antagonistic anti-media sentiment was palpable among students who are enraged over perceived media bias against Islamists, with some cajoling colleagues out of talking to reporters.

"You're not wanted. Whatever we are going to say will be twisted, just get out," a student said, cheered by others.

Students say they seek to spread their demonstratation to different sites to create their own "alternative media," in order to show how "the people" categorically decry bloodshed and the "coup" against Egypt's first freely elected president.

Police on Campus

A university lecturer opposed to the Islamists' protests vented in anger to Ahram Online outside the administrative building, where the ground was littered with papers, smashed furniture, fragments of broken glass and all the windows of the building were shattered.

"That's an invasion on my freedom and right to see a good-looking building in that hideous state. That's our image in front of the world's embassies and countries that visit us," lecturer Ahmed Mohamed, 33, said referring to the ancient institution where Muslim students from across the world study.

"It's an educational not a political venue. All of the student protests are politically-oriented, thus the administration will do nothing," Mohamed added.

The highly charged atmosphere – which further worsened with the entry of dozens of helmet-clad police officers wielding batons and armoured vehicles two hours after the violence erupted at noon– was not one appropriate for study.

At one point, groups of students randomly chased and scared off by masked police officers, ran and took shelter in a nearby building, while tens of others, in the middle of a lecture, peered in through the windows.

"We are not able to concentrate. How can we learn amidst all of this," pharmacy freshman Ahmed Attia asked, as he rushed downstairs with his white coat on as the noise drifted up.

Police moved in at the request of University President Dr. Osama Al-Abd, who, alongside another executive, was trapped inside "to protect souls and public property," according to an Interior Ministry statement.

Twenty-six students, including 14 outsiders, were arrested, the Ministry added in a separate statement.

Many students contended that infiltrators made it onto campus to "tarnish the image of protesting students," and give security forces an ostensible reason to enter the university, which, like all Egyptian campuses, has been off-limits to Interior Ministry guards since a court ruling three years ago.

Mohamed, a masked student who was among those who raided the office, insisted he was a university student, claiming administrators first sprayed them with water cannons before they responded by hurling stones, an account echoed by many at the scene.

To the contrary, university employees, who ran from a back door, claim students initiated the violence.

"We are not Brotherhood [supporters]. But we have colleagues who were killed or arrested, and that's enough of a reason to turn against the coup organisers," Ahmed Zaki, a commerce senior said.

Egypt's army overthrew Morsi in July after mammoth protests against his year-long rule. Backers of Morsi have decried the move as a coup and a violation to democracy, but the army says it was responding to the will of the people.

Hundreds of Islamists and tens of policemen were killed when security forces disbanded two major pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo calling for the reinstatement of the former president. One of the sit-ins is a short walk from the prestigious university in northeast Cairo. Dozens of others, mostly Islamists, were killed near the university's main entrance in the days leading up to the dispersals. 

University officials reiterate their support for "peaceful demonstrations," that voice educational grievances rather than political views.

"When the situation had deteriorated to a siege, causing damage and vandalism, so a distress call to the police was the only way out," Gouda Kamel, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy said.

"Police are not inside to harm students, but to protect the President and the staff."

Since the iconic university of 500,000 students opened its doors for the new academic year almost two weeks ago, hundreds of students supporting deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi have staged daily protests to call for the release of fellow colleagues and the dismissal of Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam. On occasion they have battled with police, who fired teargas from outside the university premises.

Turmoil has spread to universities across the country, frequently leading to scuffles between opposing students. Authorities said dozens have been arrested.

Some 26 students were injured Wednesday in clashes between students for and against Morsi outside the capital,  in the Nile Delta and Alexandria.

Other grievances

While anxiety was mounting in some parts of the university, classes were going on as usual in other grim-looking buildings.

The deaths and arrests of friends and colleagues druing violent unrest since Mors's exit did not seem to be the only grievances students have. Some appeared highly disenchanted with the university adminstration.

A group of engineering students, speaking at a hall of a dreary, poorly furnished building, where scaffolding has been up for two years to carry out promised maintenance, said their LE65 fees ($9.4) were not enough of a motivation for the administration to give them adequate care. They mentioned more affluent facilities catering to expatriate students, who they say are favoured because they "pay in dollars."

Others said that green areas sprawling over the vast premises  were "desert" until adminstration took moves two years ago.

Female students who study on an adjacent campus said that food and services at the university's hostel were miserable.

They complained of tough restrictions preventing out of town students from securing accommodation at the university hostel.

Hundreds of students at the Islamic University protested months ago against mass food poisoning at a dormitory last April. Critics at the time believed that the incidents were orchestrated by Islamists in order to discredit Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of the thousand-year-old authority, who opposed the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"It’s a mere tit-for-tat because we have spoken out before," senior student Doaa Sameh, from Upper Egypt's Minya, said.

"We don't have any [General] Sisi [supporters] here. You can only be [pro-] deep inside without making it public," Sameh said jokingly about army chief Abdel Fattah El-Sisi who ousted Morsi, arguing that Al-Azhar is a bastion of sympathisers of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

The Islamist movement has been netted by a wave of detentions of its upper echelons. Morsi himself has been detained at an undisclosed location since 3 July and is due to appear in court next week along with 14 others over charges of inciting violence

Islamists say they are peaceful and blame Egypt’s interim authorities for violent turmoil rocking the country since Morsi's exit, which has left hundreds dead, including security personnel.

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