Muslim Brotherhood students lose ground in Egypt's university elections

Osman El Sharnoubi, Saturday 23 Mar 2013

Liberal, socialist and independent students score significant gains in recent council elections in universities across Egypt, setting the stage for stiff competition with an embattled Brotherhood on campuses

An Egyptian student holds a flare during a march from Cairo University to parliament headquarters (Photo: Reuters).

Upon the conclusion of student elections at Egyptian universities nationwide, the emergence of political forces other than the Muslim Brotherhood represents a fresh addition to the burgeoning student movement.

This month's elections are the first to include two factors absent for decades from Egypt's university scene: no state intervention and broad participation. State Security had been known to interfere with student activity during ousted president Hosni Mubarak's term, while last year's elections were boycotted by several political forces.

Poll results, carried out over several stages starting at the base of the student body in each faculty before proceeding to the election of representatives for every faculty and each university thereafter, revealed a strong presence of students affiliated to different political parties and movements.

Politically active students belong mainly to the Constitution Party, the Egyptian Popular Current, the Revolutionary Socialists, the Strong Egypt movement (associated with the Strong Egypt party) and the Life Makers movement, headed by prominent Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled.

The lion's share of votes, however, was clinched by independent students with no political affiliation, who have been active in various student societies and groups. Muslim Brotherhood students followed the independents, who were in turn followed by other politically affiliated students.

The final stage of elections, which will lead to the formation of a Students Union Council to include representatives from every university, was comprised of 18 independent students and 17 Brotherhood students, while Life Makers won three seats, the Constitution Party two seats, Salafist students two seats, and Strong Egypt one seat.

The votes were tallied by the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), the only NGO to monitor the student polls.

Losses & gains

Final-stage elections, however, in which the heads of different university unions are elected, do not paint the complete picture. Other stages are also important and revealed a dearth of Brotherhood influence at many universities.

At Zagazig University, for example, where the Brotherhood won seats for both union president and vice president, third-stage election results – in which the heads of faculties are elected – showed that the group came behind other political groups (who won 39 percent of seats) and independents (who won 31 percent).

Mostafa Fouad, a law student at Cairo's Ain Shams University and member of the Constitution Party, told Ahram Online that the final stages of elections were a reflection of the candidates' ability to lobby and ally with other students elected at the initial stages.

This is why, Fouad says, a group might have gained a meagre percentage of seats at first, but later win top positions by eventually striking alliances with other independent elected students who give them their vote for the next stage  a strategy Brotherhood students are familiar with, he says.

In the first stage of elections in Zagazig – the only stage in which the entire student body can vote – Muslim Brotherhood lists won a lesser percentage than did the alliances of other political forces, whose lists garnered 50 percent versus the Brotherhood's 30 percent.

Despite their aggregate lead compared to other political student groups and alliances, Muslim Brotherhood students failed to make headway at some of Egypt's top universities, which saw independents and other politically affiliated students win.

At Cairo University – Egypt's oldest and largest – Muslim Brotherhood students gained fewer seats than other political groups (five compared to seven) in the third stage of elections, by which the president and vice president of each faculty's union are chosen.

The president and vice president of Cairo University's student union are both independents.

The Brotherhood also failed to clinch the presidencies and vice presidencies of Ain Shams University, Cairo's second university; Alexandria University; Upper Egypt's Assiut University; and the Nile Delta's Tanta University.

Brotherhood students' popularity at lower stages varied, however, at each of these universities. They competed strongly with other political forces at Alexandria University, less so at Tanta University, and showed dwindling popularity at Ain Shams, Tanta and especially Assiut, once considered a Brotherhood student stronghold.

The Brotherhood, however, realised a sweeping victory at one of Egypt's most important universities: Al-Azhar University, internationally renowned for Islamic scholarship.

What is novel about the new situation is that Muslim Brotherhood students now face significant opposition after being the strongest political presence at universities last year.

"While the rate of our success wasn't overwhelming, it was big; especially considering this is the first year to see broad participation by all political forces," Fouad asserted. "This is a great success."

Taking on the Brotherhood

The stage for antagonism between Muslim Brotherhood students and other politically active students within campuses was set in last year’s student elections.

In 2012, Muslim Brotherhood students decided to participate in elections governed by 1979 bylaws, infamously known as the 'State Security bylaws' in reference to the feared State Security apparatus used to quell political activity during the Mubarak era.

The decision outraged other students who demanded that the bylaws be scrapped in favour of a new post-revolution student charter written by students. They boycotted the elections, paving the way for a Brotherhood walkover.

Events following elections eventually led the Brotherhood to dominate the Egyptian Student Union (ESU), which represents students on a national scale. The ESU then formulated new bylaws without, other student groups claim, an agreed-upon referendum and passed them suddenly and behind closed doors with the education ministry.

"The Brotherhood said they would boycott last year's elections with us; all of a sudden, we heard them speak of advantages in the 1979 bylaws and they ran in the elections and won a majority," Mahmoud Safwat of Helwan University told Ahram Online. 

Safwat is one of the coordinators of the Sout Al-Talaba ('Voice of the Students') alliance, which won a landslide at Helwan University in all electoral stages. The alliance includes students from the Constitution Party, the Revolutionary Socialists, the Egyptian Popular Current and independent allies.

"To understand why students have formed alliances to run against Muslim Brotherhood students is to see how they were absent from many of the revolution's battles," Safwat said.

Brotherhood students supported their party during parliamentary elections amid Cairo's Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, and were holding 'fun days' at all campuses during the Abbasiya clashes, Safwat said, referring to confrontations between protesters and security forces in 2011 and 2012.

While student protesters were being killed for national causes, Safwat added, the Muslim Brotherhood were running after political gains. This, according to Safwat, led to a drop in their popularity on campus.

Fouad mentioned the absence of the Brotherhood in anti-government protests after the death of Alaa Abd El-Hadi, who was killed in clashes with the military near Egypt's Council of Ministers in December 2011.

Another reason for the drop in the Muslim Brotherhood's popularity among university students is the different environment they operate in compared to outside the university.

"There is no oil and sugar here," Fouad told Ahram Online, meaning that you can't bribe voters at university with cheap commodities, an allegation usually thrown at the Brotherhood during parliamentary elections.

Safwat and Fouad both told Ahram Online that one of the main demands of the alliance was the scrapping of the new bylaws, which they say aren't very different from the 1979 ones.

Spokesman for Muslim Brotherhood students Suhaib Abdel-Maksoud told Ahram Online that one of the reasons the Brotherhood didn't win a majority was that it only ran for half the seats.

"Media outlets are trying to promote the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood's popularity at universities is in decline, and this isn't true," Abdel-Maksoud said.

"As Brotherhood students, we don't view the election results as wins or losses," he added. "What's important is that electoral participation is positive and elections are free and fair."

Abdel-Maksoud denied that there had been an agreement to boycott last year's elections, attributing the absence of a referendum on adopting new bylaws to Egyptian law, saying there was no law allowing such a move.

"Passing bylaws is an administrative procedure and is not subject to referendum," he said, adding that workshops and meetings had been held at universities across Egypt when writing the new bylaws, despite other students' insistence that a referendum had been agreed upon.

Bearing the brunt of off-campus politics

The recent election was a turning point in the history of Egyptian universities, believes former student leader and head of the Egyptian Socialist Party Ahmed Bahaa El-Din Shaaban, who wrote several books about the Egyptian student movement of the 1970s.

"The university is an immediate reflection of the political life of society at large," Shaaban said, expressing his belief that election results showed the waning influence of Islamists in Egypt.

"Brotherhood students are bearing the brunt of their group's performance in government," Shaaban added, voicing the belief that student elections are an important indicator of upcoming parliamentary elections, in which he believes Islamists will lose much of what they gained previously – provided elections are free and fair.

The Muslim Brotherhood won more than half of the seats in parliament in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak legislative polls in late 2011. 

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who rode to the presidency on a Muslim Brotherhood ticket, and his government are under attack as the country continues to suffer economic malaise and political unrest.

"The Brotherhood has been the prominent political force on Egyptian campuses for the past 30 years; this is now changing and the performance of civil forces is significantly improving," Shaaban told Ahram Online. 

Shaaban believes that Muslim Brotherhood students will have difficulty recruiting younger cadres, as freshmen students are gradually becoming more politically aware and forming negative views of the Brotherhood.

Political sociologist Ammar Ali Hassan, writing in English-language state newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly on Thursday, agrees with Shaaban.

"Although the Brotherhood has been actively trying to recruit young people since its accession to power, its subsequent failure to run the country has damaged its image and thus its ability to recruit," he wrote.

ESU elections are yet to be held. A two-thirds vote of the ESU is required to amend or overhaul the student charter. The Brotherhood, gaining a considerable share of the Students Union Council – which will elect members of the ESU – is sure to have a say in the issue.

"Even if we don't win the ESU," Fouad told Ahram Online, "the gains of all political forces that took part in the elections are still significant." Fouad puts those gains on par with revolutionary gains on campus.

"Students are the benchmark by which revolutionary progress is measured," he concluded.

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