What's going on in Egypt's Al-Azhar University?

Ayat Al-Tawy , Tuesday 31 Dec 2013

Exams are continuing at the prestigious Islamic institution despite the ongoing demonstrations, arrests, and clashes

Al-Azhar University clashes
Tear gas fired by riot police at protesters fills the air during clashes between riot police and students of Al-Azhar University, who support the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, outside the university's campus in Cairo's Nasr City district December 27, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Tensions continue to simmer at Al-Azhar University, the world's oldest Islamic learning institution, after an ongoing security crackdown on campus left three student protesters dead last weekend.

Three Al-Azhar students were killed in Cairo on Friday and Saturday and scores were arrested as students continued to fight with police days after the government designated the 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood movement a "terrorist organisation."

The university's main campus in the Nasr City district of Cairo was not the only scene of violence in recent days. Clashes between police and rioting students were also reported in Sharqiya and Daqahliya in the Nile Delta, and the southern city of Assiut, prompting university administrations to postpone end-of-term exams at several institutions.

On Monday, students loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood movement persisted with attempts to enforce a boycott of exams at the Cairo campus, with minor scuffles with police reported.

Earlier this week, a group of female engineering students tore up exam papers midway through an exam amid a campaign to press for a student strike, prompting a postponement. Al-Azhar students in Assiut also successfully barred students and faculty members from exam halls.

Violent clashes broke in Cairo's Madinet Nasr campus out as students who support former president Mohamed Morsi refused to allow other students on campus to attend the first day of exams.

A score of pro-Muslim Brotherhood students reportedly raided and set fire to on-campus buildings belonging to the faculties of commerce and agriculture as police fired teargas to disperse the crowds.

A security source told Al-Ahram Arabic website that a total of 101 pro-Muslim Brotherhood students were arrested in the clashe  possessing firearms, Molotov cocktails, fireworks and a bag of nails.

Despite the attempts, an uneasy calm held at the flashpoint campus in Cairo on Tuesday, and exams went off as planned.

The historical university’s main Cairo campus, where some 120,000 students across 20 different faculties are registered, has for months been a hub of protests against the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July.

Defying a broad crackdown on their street movements, Islamists have turned their sights on universities in Cairo and elsewhere.

Egyptian police entered Al-Azhar University campus in Cairo in October to confront violent Islamist protests upon a request from the university head. It was the first time security forces set foot onto a university campus since a 2010 court ruling banned interior ministry guards, known for their heavy-handed tactics, from operating on university grounds.

Officials, however, stressed that the ongoing student protests had not had major negative effects.

Deputy Head of Al-Azhar University Tawfik Noureddin said only three out of the university's 80 faculties countrywide had seen exams deferred, and would take place at the end of the exam season.

"Only three faculties -- one in Cairo (engineering) and two in Assiut (sciences and sharia) -- have seen exams postponed," Noureddin told Ahram Online.

"Otherwise, the situation is perfectly normal," he said.

According to Noureddin, new security measures will be enforced to counter student rioting.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have vowed to continue daily protests after the state's terrorist designation of the Brotherhood last week following a suicide bombing that killed 16 people north of Cairo, an attack condemned by the group and claimed by a separate Sinai-based militant organisation.

The declaration will allow authorities to toughen their crackdown on the group that brought Morsi to power last year but has been driven back in to the shadows since his ouster.

Turmoil on campus

"Both sides are in the wrong. They both provoke each other and commit violations," second-year pharmacy student Mahmoud Tantawy told Ahram Online. "A strike will do nothing but waste a year of our lives."  

Al-Azhar students of commerce in Cairo also reported rescheduling of exams following violence on Saturday and Sunday.

Mohamed Mostafa, a junior, said he arrived at campus Saturday morning for exams only to find out that a colleague, Khaled Haddad, had been killed minutes earlier in clashes with police.

Haddad’s classmates were angered by the events and attacked any professor or administrative employee they came upon, said Mostafa.

"Consequently there was no exam, and we all left," he added.

University officials have called on police to secure all faculties and exam halls, infuriating students who accuse the administration of being in lockstep with authorities. 

During Saturday’s violence, the commerce faculty building was set on fire. TV footage showed black smoke billowing out of the shattered windows, smashed desks, tables and chairs strewn across lecture halls, and corridors slick with water after the fire was put out.

Mostafa claimed that of his department's 300 students all but eight had planned to boycott exams, which were eventually deferred.

The university's faculty club responded with vigour, calling for the closure of the Cairo student dormitory, where protests are believed to converge. The club’s head, Hassan Oweida, said the hostel has become "a nest of some 1,200 terrorists."

Even students who are not politically active have been affected by the violence, claims Mostafa.

"At some point, even some of the non-protesting students waiting outside to take a bus were chased and badly beaten by policemen," he said, claiming that many were arbitrarily arrested.

Some professors have been bent on speeding up lectures despite the unrest in a pattern of tit-for-tat measures, Mostafa and a colleague said, while the administration remains adamantly opposed to a suspension of exams.

Education or freedom

An agricultural faculty building on Cairo's main campus was also set on fire on Saturday, and Al-Ahram Arabic news website said a second fire took place in the building on Sunday.

The Brotherhood's London press office said the buildings were set on fire by security forces, not student protesters, Reuters reported, while a government official accused "Brotherhood terrorist students" of responsibility for the attacks.

Exams in the faculty went ahead uninterrupted, according to professor Mahmoud Khafagy.

"But the situation overall is tragic. Professors aren’t able to make it to their faculties because of the clashes. Birdshot by police has damaged several of their cars," he said.

The professor, nevertheless, defended the students' right to decry what he labelled "a sabotage of democracy" constituted by the military ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

He shrugged off questions as to whether protesters are standing in the way of other students.

"Egypt has already been impeded in every other aspect," he said.

"Which is more important: education, or freedom and democracy? Letting things go normally means agreeing to the violations that have taken place," Khafagy said.

He blamed the violence on "security thugs."

Dismayed students

But both protesting and non-protesting students seemed dismayed at the recent tumult.

"Every other day there must be teargas, birdshot, thugs, clashes, armoured vehicles and policemen inside campus, " Salma Kassem, a commerce freshman who  boycotted a Sunday exam in solidarity with arrested students told Ahram Online.

Recalling events at an engineering faculty exam on Sunday when police officers lined up in two rows, allowing those willing to take exams to pass through, while others protested metres away, Kassem said: "What kind of exams are these? The mere sight of the security [personnel] would make anyone forget what they have studied." Kassem also claimed some of the female students were beaten by policemen before they were arrested.

Referring to the state of disorder, Kassem said she looked on while engineering students on Sunday thronged round a professor's car, grabbing the exam answer sheets he was holding and tearing them up.

Nevertheless, with the rescheduling and high turnout in exams, the students' strike campaign seemed to have been thwarted.

"[Our Sunday] strike almost failed because virtually all the students had taken the exam," said Kassem.

Sunday and Monday were relatively calm compared to violence in the beginning of the week, she said.

She claimed the number of protesting student was on the decline, with numerous arrests having been made as well as some parent's reluctance to "risk their sons' lives" by allowing them to go to the "flashpoint" university to take their exams.

Outside Cairo, a commerce dean of an Al-Azhar campus in Daqahliya, where clashes were reported on Sunday, argued that some media outlets were amplifying the situation.

Mohamed Moussa told Ahram Online that while as few as "five, six" students gather and chant, some channels -- singling out the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera -- promote "lies about a campus on fire."

Unlike many who believe Al-Azhar University to be a bastion of Brotherhood supporters, Moussa argues the demonstrations are due to the fact that many of the university’s students are poor and can be easily "hired" and directed to serve certain purposed, tacitly referring to the Brotherhood.

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