The American University in Cairo has recently come under attack by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) when a statement was issued on Facebook describing the faculty and students as "tools" of the US government. The statement also accused a number of students of aiming to bring about the "downfall of Egypt".
One of the reasons listed included a ‘Kazeboon’ (Liars) film screening. Kazeboon is a decentralised movement involving ordinary people downloading videos of military abuses and showing them in the streets of different Cairo districts.
The statement also listed the public lectures given by prominent activists Alaa Abdel Fatah and the sister of Khaled Said. Two leftist political science professors, Sameh Naguib and Rabab El-Mahdi, were specifically mentioned by name as part of the alleged scheme.
The statement, published on 9 February, was a response to calls for a national strike on 11 February, the one-year anniversary of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. A number of political forces, students and independent workers unions were involved in calling for the SCAF to handover power immediately to a civil authority.
As the statement did not appear on the SCAF’s official Facebook page, there was confusion regarding its authenticity. Questions regarding its connection to the military council were cleared up however when it emerged that the administrator of the page did appear on and can update the official SCAF page.
In response, the university's student union issued an angry statement demanding that the SCAF provide evidence for the accusations, otherwise legal measures would be taken against the military council.
The university’s involvement in calls for a general strike came on the heels of the death of an AUC student. Omar Mohsen—set to graduate in a couple of weeks—was killed during the violence at the Port Said football stadium on 1 February. Mohsen was a member of the Ultras Ahlawy (hardcore football supporters of Cairo club Ahly) who were targeted in the attacks, some say because of their pro-revolution role, accusing security forces of complicity in the killings.
One of the professors mentioned by name in the statement, Rabab El-Mahdi, is a professor of political science and one of the key figures behind a teach-in organised by students and faculty as part of the strike and acts of disobedience. She described the statement as a form of "fascism whereby propaganda is being disseminated to play on nationalist sentimentalities."This attack can only be read in one way, she said, that “we are on the right path towards succeeding in our struggle."
Although AUC is one of the country’s most elite private academic institutions, there is a critical mass of students who mobilise on the university's campus. Protests over the past couple of years have been in a relation to a range of political issues from solidarity with workers’ strikes to opposition to raises in tuition fees, and from calls for the resignation of university security and administration members who had ties to the former regime and the National Democratic Party ('Tahrir AUC' movement) to calls for a nation-wide civil disobedience strike most recently.
El-Mahdi described the decision taken by the university administration to suspend classes for three days during the strike, allowing for a variety of political debates, lectures, and teach-ins was "in the spirit of civic engagement", as articulated in a message circulated within AUC. The administration’s decision is seen as a smart move, as it was obvious that there was anger amongst the students, especially after the death of Omar Mohsen. El-Mahdi added that this was however part of a larger movement, including several universities with the political science department at Cairo University taking the same stance.
Hanan Sabea, professor of anthropology, also one of the organisers of the teach-in stated that the only way to respond was to ask a simple question: “At the same time that our loyalties and identities are being questioned, we would like to ask where the SCAF’s budget is coming from.” She added that while, “we are all against US dominance and control in any shape of form, there is no doubt that an outrageous campaign is being carried out against Americans in Egypt and against foreign funding in the country."
Sabea described the identification of AUC professors as particularly threatening. She argued also that statement cannot be seen in vacuum, but as part of a larger anti-foreigner pattern over the past year, whether the anti-foreign fervour that was present during the last days of Mubarak’s reign or the ongoing attacks on foreign-funded non-governmental organisations operating in Egypt.
Nadeem Abdel Gawad, a recent graduate and student activist, also shares the view that this is not a unique incident. He sees this sort of attack as a tactic used by the military council to “disfigure” and defame those it is not able to make political deals with. This tactic was used, Abdel Gawad says against political groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement, the Revolutionary Socialists, and now, AUC faculty and students, who have all posed a legitimate threat.
A student in her third year, who goes by the name of Injy, had quite a different view. She was opposed to the strike and did not find the SCAF statement objectionable. “I personally believe that yes, the university, or more specifically, some faculty at the university are instigating anti-SCAF sentiment,” Injy said. She mentioned in particular a sociology class she attended in which she felt the professor was vehemently trying to instill anti-SCAF ideas amongst the students. She clarified however that she believed the university is an "instigator" but not an "agent" of the American state. “If I were to put myself in the SCAF’s shoes,” she said, “I would see this as an attempt to instigate a coup-d’etat.”
In what way such an attack on the university will develop and what the repercussions will be remains unclear for now. But based on further accusations made by the SCAF or the response of the student body, Sabea believes that this campaign of instilling fear through direct or indirect threats against faculty members and students will not come to an end so long as they are working to make the revolution succeed. And, she says, as long as an attempt is being made to coordinate labour and student action, the response to the regime’s attacks will not be confined to the university’s walls.