University students maintain place at vanguard of revolution

Wael Eskandar, Thursday 9 Feb 2012

Both this year and last, Egypt's formidable community of student-activists has played a key role in the post-uprising protest movement

 students of Cairo university
The students of Cairo university (Photo: Reuters)

Over the last year, Egyptian university students have proven to be one of the most politically active segments of the population. Not only have they participated in protests, sit-ins and marches, they have also attempted to bring the revolution to their respective universities. Spurred on by the death of colleagues during Egypt's on-going protest movements, university students across the country have ensured – through their ability to successfully mobilise and protest – that their role in shaping Egypt's political future has not diminished in the wake of the ouster of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak.

In February, after Mubarak's departure, it looked as if the tide was turning, with Cairo University President Hossam Kamel declaring that the interior ministry's university police would no longer be present on campus. The relief that followed the momentous announcement, however, did not last long. Starting from early march, Cairo University students began staging protests against the university president, who Egypt's new military rulers appeared reluctant to replace. 

Cairo University students weren't the only ones to bring the ongoing revolution into their campus. By late March, students across the country found themselves in direct confrontation with authorities. Students at Nile University, the only university in Egypt dedicated to research, joined the student movement when the state commandeered the university’s premises and forbade faculty and students from entering.

“We staged a protest on 30 March to demand that we be allowed onto university premises taken over by the state," said Mariam Ibrahim, the Nile University student union’s head of academics. "We’ve been protesting ever since." 

Nile University students and faculty later held numerous protests in front of the Cabinet building in downtown Cairo and at the Ministry of Higher Education.

Meanwhile, at the German University in Cairo (GUC), a privately owned university located in New Cairo, a battle for students’ rights to representation was also taking place.

"Students had no representation, so during the Tahrir Square uprising we formed a group called the 'GUC Rebels'," said GUC student union head Amr Abdel Wahab. "And we protested against the lack of a student union."

Thirty students were suspended for protesting. Large demonstrations ensued with hundreds of students participating in a struggle that continues until today.

At Cairo University's mass communications faculty, meanwhile, a student sit-in was violently broken up by military police wielding electric batons. This was followed by more clashes in April.

In Alexandria, meanwhile, thousands of students protested against University President Hend Hanafy and the seeming return of the hated campus police.

The student protest movement has alternated between campus activism and street protests. Many students participated in the mass demonstrations that have taken place in public spaces such as Cairo's Tarhir Square.

On 27 April, for instance, hundreds of Cairo University students marched on the Israeli embassy in Giza following the death of several Egyptian soldiers in a cross-border raid by Israeli military forces.

With the beginning of the new academic year in September, campus activism resumed in earnest. Students and workers at the American University in Cairo (AUC), for example, launched a strike demanding lower tuition fees and higher wages for campus workers.

“The first time students took a stand in solidarity with university workers and staff dates back to late 2010,” said Sarah Abdelrahman, an active AUC student who has attended meetings in solidarity with the workers. “You can’t sit still and watch workers revolting because they only receive LE400 a month while you pay thousands in tuition.”

Public universities in Cairo, Alexandria, Ain Shams and Mansoura have also picked up where they left off before the summer interval, witnessing several mass protests against Mubarak-era university presidents.

In early October, a small victory was achieved when Ain Shams University President Maged El-Deeb submitted his resignation – but not before professors had gone on strike. In Mansoura, meanwhile, the saga continued as the head of Mansoura University was replaced by a faculty dean appointed by the Mubarak regime.

Large numbers of students also participated in November's clashes on Cairo's Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which left 41 dead and over one thousand injured.  Thousands of students from Cairo, Ain Shams and Helwan universities also marched to Tahrir Square to register their opposition to Egypt's ruling military council. Nile University students, for their part, suspended all university activities for one day to show their solidarity with the protesters.

“We had planned a strike for 19 November, but this was suspended due to events on Mohamed Mahmoud Street,” said the GUC student union's Abdel Wahab. A number of GUC students, meanwhile, had also joined the ongoing fray in downtown Cairo.

Not long afterwards, a security crackdown on a sit-in protest outside the Cabinet building in December left 19 dead and 750 injured. Alaa Abd El-Hady, a fifth-year medical student at Ain Shams University, was among those killed during the crackdown. Some 2,000 students planned to march from Ain Shams University to the defense ministry to protest the death of their fellow student, but were ultimately intercepted by military forces.

And after an engineering student was shot in the back by security forces during a raid on protesters camped out in Tahrir Square, students from Ain Shams University's engineering faculty attempted another protest march to the defence ministry. This too, however, was blocked by security forces.

Unable so far to attain their key goals, and seeing the ruling military council as the biggest obstacle to progress, Egyptian students are determined to find fresh solutions.

“Students have nothing to lose. We have nothing to do but bring down the military,” said Nile University's Ibrahim. “There are millions of us. If we move, we’re going to have an impact.”

Students across the country, meanwhile, are now calling for a nationwide general strike on Saturday.

“Students have the imagination to dream of a better life for themselves," said AUC's Abdelrahman, "and the energy to achieve it."

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