Egypt's university students challenge new 'oppressive regulations'

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 12 Nov 2013

A debate around a political seminar at Tanta University brings to the surface concerns borne of a new decree aiming to control on-campus activism and potential dissent

Protesters gather amidst remnants of teargas smoke during clashes with riot police at Al-Azhar University in Cairo October 20, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

The Tanta University Student Union will hold a meeting on Tuesday to consider a lawsuit to annul a decree issued earlier this month believed by the union leaders to have imposed “excessively oppressive regulations on political activism of university students – no matter how unpartisan.”

According to Tanta University Student Union member Hossam Fahmi, contacts have already been initiated with lawyers and concerned NGOs to pursue the intervention of the administrative court against a decree issued on 1 November by the Higher Council of Universities prohibiting demonstrators at universities from targeting a particular individual or body.

"But this is the whole purpose of a demonstration: we demonstrate against someone or some body because they did something that we find to be unfair and we criticise them for it; otherwise, why demonstrate?” Fahmi wondered.

The new decree bans any protest without prior notice to the university administration, bans the use of megaphones and drums in protests, and imposes up to LE5000 in fines for graffiti on university walls or facilities.

The decree also bans on-campus gatherings of a non-educational nature, including those held for partisan purposes. Furthermore, only university students and staff are allowed by the decree to attend on-campus gatherings.

According to Fahmi, the decree that was issued "in what might be an attempt to restrict the activities of Muslim Brotherhood students, would inevitably end up imposing too many restrictions on the rights of all students to [allow them participation] in the political domain; it is oppressive and it should be annulled," Fahmi said.

He added that "we are faced with a clear attempt at denying students the right to hold political views and political activities. This is a major setback for a country that has gone through so many political developments."

Fahmi spoke to Ahram Online Monday evening, after he successfully intervened to "defy an attempt by some to thwart a political seminar at the university, as part of the larger scheme to prohibit students from having political views and activities."

On the basis of insufficient paperwork, the Tanta University administration had Monday morning prevented political and rights activists Amr Ezzat and Ibrahim El-Houdaiby from addressing an audience awaiting a seminar on political developments organised by Faculty of Dentistry student members of the Strong Egypt Party. 

According to Ezzat, the invitation extended for the seminar had supposedly met all necessary paperwork requirements but "apparently, there was a last minute change of mind on the side of the administration for reasons that they did not share and that we can only speculate on."

The regulations in existence prior to the new decree required that students "notify" the university administration and security of a planned seminar. "The regulations did not actually allow the administration to object to any seminar [already approved by] the Student Union," Fahmi explained.

The university administration's intervention to obstruct a seminar to which two prominent activists had been invited to speak publicly about political developments, Fahmi said, would not have been possible without the decree he seeks to annul.

The seminar was eventually held at the Faculty of Medicine where Fahmi is enrolled and where, he said, "the administration is more willing to accommodate the students' interest in debating actualities, including politics, provided that the speakers are of a certain calibre and that the seminar is serious."

According to Ezzat, the Faculty of Dentistry's decision to reject the seminar was "conspicuously last-minute."

"We were only notified after we'd already arrived in Tanta," he said. The reason offered by the administration, he added, was that both his and El-Houdaiby's resumes were not sufficiently thorough to help the administration make an informed decision on whether or not they could be hosted to speak publicly.

Amr Ezzat and Ibrahim El-Houdaiby are both prominent activists and commentators.

Ezzat is particularly associated with the human rights movement with extensive work on religious discrimination, while El-Houdaibi is closer to political research and analysis. Both Ezzat and El-Houdaibi have had a brief association with the Muslim Brotherhood but were quick to defect and pursue an independent political agenda that advocates citizenship rights, social justice and liberties.

Fahmi, for his part, is not willing to accept this justification "because it is simply too hard to believe, given that most people know Amr Ezzat and Ibrahim El-Houdaiby well. It is not about Amr and Ibrahim; it is about the state's wish to ban politics at universities. We will not let this happen."

Preemptive decree?

A source at the Ministry of Higher Education who requested anonymity said the controversial decree was issued ahead of the expected termination of the state of emergency to allow the state to "contain the activities and demonstrations of the Muslim Brotherhood after what happened at Al-Azhar University."

Prior to the decree, Al-Azhar University in Cairo had witnessed massive demonstrations by Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathisers against the deposition of president Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent arrests of Islamist activists.

Lawyer and human rights activists Ahmed Ragheb said the link between the Al-Azhar University demonstrations and the "line of tough restrictions" on on-campus political activism introduced by the Higher Council of Universities' decree "might be said to be targeting the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist students, but in fact [...] the text of the decree is all about curtailing, and actually criminalising, any public show or promotion of anti-regime sentiment," he added.

According to Ragheb, an administrative court could annul the decree without difficulty given the "many loopholes [it contains]," key among which, he explained, is the fact that it was adopted in the absence of any student union representatives "and this goes straight against the legally required process."

Fahmi said his university's student union plans to coordinate and consult with counterpart unions from other universities to ensure a substantial force demands the annulment of the decree.

For his part, Ragheb is concerned that the attempt to prohibit student unions from political engagement would transcend this decree if the draft law designed to "regulate" demonstrations is adopted.

"This law is more about curtailing demonstrations; if adopted, it could only be put down by a decree from the Higher Constitutional Court and this is a very lengthy and complicated legal process," he explained.

Ezzat, who is also a senior researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, shares Ragheb's concern that liberties in general, and political liberties in specific, are set to face very serious challenges.

"I am afraid to say we are talking about challenges that might be even worse than [...] those under the rule of [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak. I mean, after the 25 January Revolution... it is really very sad," Ragheb concluded.

Short link: