Egypt's Al-Azhar University braces for a calmer year at dorms

Hana Afifi, Monday 29 Sep 2014

Officials at the Islamic university are taking steps to prevent a return of last year's on campus violence between students and security forces

Students queue at Al-Azhar's males dormitory to register for housing, Cairo, Egypt, Sept 18, 2014 (Photo: Hana Afifi)

Students who want to live in Al-Azhar University's dorms this year have found something new: a black-and-white form they must sign.

"I promise…that I will not participate in any political activities at the university dorms…I also promise that I will not participate in any protests inside the dorms. In case I violate any of these promises, I take responsibility for any action the dorms' administration will take against me."

The text consists of 20 clauses that will be distributed to the new residents. "This is a pledge that every student at the dorm residence will have to sign," said Hussein Yassine, general manager of Al-Azhar University's dorms.

The application process for housing at the university's dorms is not happening exactly as in past years. Guards are stationed at the dorms' main gate and control access to the residences – the scene of violent, near-daily protests throughout the last academic year as students in favour of ousted president Mohamed Morsi clashed with security forces.

Several students were killed in the violence. Hundreds of others were arrested and are still behind bars for protesting.

The incidents left remarkable traces on the dormitories – broken windows, fragmented tiles that probably served as projectiles and burned walls.

"Most problems were caused by students from outside the dorms," assures Yassine, sitting behind his desk overflowing with files.

Because of the unrest, Al-Azhar University banned around 500 students from living at the dorms. The pledge that new students must sign is one of several precautionary measures to prevent a return of unrest in the academic year, which will start on 11 October.

Azhar clashes
Tear gas fired by riot police at protesters fills the air during clashes between riot police and students of Al-Azhar University, who support the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, outside the university's campus in Cairo's Nasr City district December 27, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

The administration will also install electronic portals at the dormitory entrances that will be accessible only by identity cards.

According to Yassine, any student who takes part in a protest or organises one – even by distributing pamphlets – will be immediately kicked out of the dorms and will have to pay for any damages.

Also, those forced to leave the dorms will not be let back in this year. The same goes for those who are on trial or have been charged with violence.

The university's vice-president, Tawfiq Noor El-Din, told Al-Ahram Hebdo in a phone call that it's not the school's responsibility to find housing for students who have been involved in violence or protests.

Lining up to register

But at the registration office, students say they haven't noticed any changes in procedure at the dorms.

Earlier this month, students from the faculty of education were rushing to apply for a space in the university dorms. Hussein, from Sohag in Upper Egypt, was leaning on the wall, skimming through a newspaper while waiting for his colleague.

"I completed my registration yesterday, there were so many people," Hussein said.

Khairy Ibrahim, a university employee in the registrars' office, confirmed that demand was remarkably higher than previous years. In front of his desk, the registration files were piled up. "Only yesterday, we received over 600 students," Ibrahim said.

By 17 September, just over 5,000 males and around 7,200 females had submitted registration demands at the university's dorms, more than 12,000 students. The deadline for submitting demands was 25 September, ahead of the start of the academic year.

At the female dorms, medicine students were queuing in the midday sun when they learned that the employees wouldn't show up that day.

"We have come to register, but we found out that the administration is off today," said Iman El-Hossein, from Mansoura in the Nile Delta.

The laughs of the disappointed young women were in contrast with the atmosphere of protests and upheaval that reigned at the same place only a few months before.

Out-of-service buildings

This semester, five of the university's 20 dormitory buildings in Cairo will be closed – three for males and two for females, capable of housing 2,000 students. This means a drop in dorm residents from 19,000 to 17,000, according to figures provided by Yassine.

Students in the dorms are selected for high academic performance and benefit from a discounted fee of only LE60 per month – which means those 2,000 students will have to find someplace else to live.

The student union reacted angrily to the dorms' closure. "It's a decision from the interior ministry. They will let the policemen use the buildings to target the protestors," accused Atef, the union's acting president. He says 4,000 – and not 2,000 – students will lose their dormitory housing.

"The decision is purely political," Atef says. "But we will not accept this decision."

However, Yassine insisted the reasons behind the dorms' closure were only technical.

"Partial maintenance work is taking place at three buildings, while two buildings need full maintenance," he said. According to him, only one of the buildings' damage was from last year's upheaval.

Either way, students and administrators are waiting for the new year to begin, despite the uncertainties.

*A version of this article was first published in Al-Ahram's French weekly Hebdo

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