Riot police fire tear gas during a demonstration at the front of Cairo University (File Photo: Reuters)
Egyptian universities kicked off the autumn term earlier this month with a shadow hanging over them. Last year was the most violent academic year in Egyptian history, with nineteen students dying in clashes with police.
The year of continuous protests and clashes took place for the most part between the police and the Students Against the Coup group which supports ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. But the strain of ongoing campus violence, including teargas, arrests, vandalism and assaults, has left its mark on the entire student body.
“There is a feeling among students that the state is trying to control universities and violate their independence,” said Wesam Ata, a student at Al-Azhar University where many of the fiercest clashes between Brotherhood-supporting students and police have taken place.
The new term started with an unfamiliar sight: uniformed security guards from a private firm called Falcon Group were checking students’ identity cards and bags on the first day of classes last week. The long queues that formed as students waited to be searched caused many complaints.
The spectacle of students being searched by uniformed guards, pictures of which made the rounds on Twitter, was a physical manifestation of other measures taken to prevent a repeat of last year’s unrest.
Ata, who is a member of the liberal Constitution Party’s student group, says while the protesters are mainly among the pro-Brotherhood students, anger is increasing among the rest of the student body.
Tightening the security grip
Several university administrations, including those of some of Egypt’s biggest universities such as Cairo University and Ain Shams University, announced a ban on any partisan or religious student societies.
An amendment to university laws earlier in the year gave university presidents to expel students without the previously mandated process of investigation. To add insult to injury, private Egyptian daily Al-Shorouk reported that university administrators are recruiting students to rat out their peers who engage in politics or violence.
The allegations in the report have not been denied by the universities.
These developments have led many students to accuse authorities of directly attacking rights they had won after the 2011 revolution.
“Resentment is spreading in the university, it’s far more than it once was,” Ata says. The rights to free expression, to organise politically, and for universities to be administratively independent, which were gained after 2011, are being eaten away, he asserts.
The post-2011 period did indeed see genuine progress for advocates of campus freedoms. For example, a despised charter governing university administration, known as the 1979 charter, was finally revoked and replaced in 2012 by a new charter that was less restrictive.
While there is contention about the current charter, the latest amendment which was approved last week by the Supreme Council for Universities, doesn’t contain the restrictions on student freedom seen in the 1979 version.
For example, the old charter had explicitly prohibited politics inside universities, and these prohibitions were abolished in the 2012 version.
Another move widely hailed as a positive development was the removal of police from campuses, to be replaced instead by administrative security forces run by each university.
But now authorities are attempting to backtrack on such developments, students say, using the violence committed by some students on campus as an excuse.
Last year saw the universities obtain authorisation from the government to allow police forces on campuses when needed. Despite police not being allowed on university grounds, there is a heavy police presence around university exits and entrances, as strict orders were given by the interior ministry not to allow protests to leave university grounds.
The Falcon company is only stationed at gates to check for weapons and explosives.
Despite the new measures, an Alexandria University student died on Tuesday from injuries sustained during clashes with police.
Footage from Alexandria circulating online showed security forces volleying teargas inside university grounds while students fired fireworks at them, and many students suffering the effects of the gas, sparking outrage by some students that the state is failing to mitigate the precarious security situation.
Solving the crisis through other means
Cairo University student Mohamed El-Shafie told Ahram Online, as had the president of Helwan University’s student union Islam Fawzy, that security is first and foremost a student demand - Fawzy even revealed that hiring private security firms in universities was discussed in student unions meetings.
However El-Shafie maintains that the security solution is no way to resolve the situation, as is evident with the continuation of protests.
“Opening the university for all kinds of activities, political, intellectual, artistic, etc. is the only way the Brotherhood-led protests will be drowned out, not the opposite,” El-Shafie contends.
“When you restrict campus life to academia and only academia you create an artificial atmosphere that will perpetuate the current conditions which in turn would lead students to be angrier and eventually join the protests,” he said.
Fawzy, the Helwan Union student union head, says infringements on campus freedoms will eventually affect even apolitical students.
“There are many problems in Egyptian universities, problems with student accommodation, problems with increasing tuition, issues with security obviously; these problems affect all students, and when the administration prevents them from voicing them the student body will eventually explode,” he said.
Fawzy argues authorities are interfering in every aspect of student life and says the situation is unsustainable, specifically because the measures don’t bode well with students at large.
Such grievances were clearly articulated by the opening statement of a new student coalition launched on Saturday.
The Egyptian Students’ Coalition is comprised of several student groups including students of the prominent Moqawma student rights movement, students of the Constitution Party, the 6 April Youth Movement, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Revolutionary Socialists, the Strong Egypt Party, the Freedom for Students movement and others.
In a statement, the coalition rejected “the calm the security grip is attempting to force ignoring other means of dialogue, participation and expression.”
Authorities have spent their time “issuing a number of repressive laws and decisions against students,” the founding statement of the coalition said, and demanded the immediate release of detained students, rescinding on all “arbitrary” decisions taken against students.
The coalition specifically addressed most of the grievances expressed by students Ahram Online spoke with, including the arbitrary expulsion of students, creating informants among students and disbanding student societies.
They also demanded administrative security forces be trained to deal with security threats inside universities, instead of spending money on private security firms.
One of the students made clear they stand opposed to what they said was “the violence of the Student Against the Coup movement” just as they reject violence from security forces.
Since the beginning of the semester, dozens of students have been arrested. In the first week alone, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression - an university freedoms watchdog - reported 195 cases of student arrests. Dozens were arrested the day before the academic term kicked off.
Adamant about opposing authorities’ methods and decisions, the Egyptian Students’ Coalition said in its statement “the path of democracy and human rights and that of development must move forward in a balanced way and in parallel, and many historical examples have proved that moving forward only in the latter part, and ignoring the former will inevitably lead in the failure of the process.”