Students of Egypt's American University question its ties to Mubarak's regime

Salma Shukrallah , Thursday 7 Apr 2011

The American University in Cairo boasts of its commitment to academic independence and liberal education traditions, yet some of its students and staff are now questioning the depth of these commitments

AUC students in solidarity with workers
AUC students demonstrate in solidarity with the university's workers' sit-in to demand higher wages. Photo courtesy of Gigi Ibrahim

Upon Mubarak's overthrow and days after the American University in Cairo (AUC) resumed classes, an anonymous group of AUC students circulated a petition questioning the university's constitution, which states that “students are prohibited from engaging in non-academic religious and political activities, as well as any unauthorised group formation within the university.”

The students argued in their statement that “AUC identifies itself as, above and beyond all things, Egyptian, and insists that it is apolitical, when its behaviour indicates that it is precisely the product of the outgoing regime and its institutions.”

The group says that as an institution the university claims to be neutral towards politics, while its positions are highly political and have been very much connected to Mubarak's toppled regime.

Anthropology professor, Hanan Sabea, says that while many students and professors were present in Tahrir Square during the early days of February the university expected them to to resume classes.

The Chronicle of Higher Education mentions that the AUC president sent an email to all faculty that read that if they do not show up by the opening date of the university their absence would be considered an 'immediate resignation', which "angered many faculty members."

While the university's warning – or threat – could be seen as a sign that the institution was adopting a “neutral” position during the revolution, it has come across to some Egyptian members of the faculty and staff as an attempt to isolate them from Egyptian society.

Even worse, to others it appeared that the university was defending the now ousted regime.

“What will the university do with the Suzanne Mubarak hall, will it change the name? It used to celebrate Police Day, what did that mean?” asks Sabea.

In fact, Sabea's questions were raised by students before the revolution. For example, when the university celebrated Police Day in 2010, student Philip Rizk, who only a year earlier had been detained, blindfolded and interrogated for three consecutive days by the police, sent a letter to the university president protesting the decision to host such a celebration.

Rizk's concern was disregarded by the university, and, in a premonitory fashion, Egypt's revolution started precisely one year after Rizk sent his letter of protest. The very first day of demonstrations was planned on Police Day for the express purpose of condemning police violence and brutality.

After Mubarak was forced to step down by the millions of Egyptians that had taken to the streets AUC requested that each department contribute to the success of the revolution academically. Sabea says “we were asked to collect testimonies and the like.” Obviously not satisfied, she continues “The university wants us to collect rather than engage.”

Students involved in the campaign share Sabea's concerns and insisted the university's policies imposed “separatism,” seeking to isolate its students from the wider Egyptian society.

While their isolation was the focus of early action, in their third and fourth petitions students openly accused the university of commemorating the former regime's corrupt figures, highlighting the educational institution's alleged complicity with the old regime's state security apparatus, which is widely known for torturing and killing Egyptian citizens. One close-to-home example is the detention and torture of AUC alumni Hossam El-Hamalawy by state security in 2000.

The university's alleged involvement with the old regime's security apparatus was related to the use of its Tahrir Square campus by police snipers to kill demonstrators gathered in the square during Egypt's 25 January Revolution.

AUC President Lisa Anderson officialy condemned police using Tahirir's campus to fire at protestors, and in an official statement noted that the univesity had no knowledge that the gates of its then empty campus had been forced open, and that its rooftop was used to fire on demonstrators, as evidenced by empty shells found there.

However, students have focused on the role of state security on campus prior to the revolution, a role they claim violated student freedoms through threats, interrogations and even torture. They cite El-Hamalawy when he spoke of state security officers, who: “openly boasted of their relation to – and influence on – the American University in Cairo,” according to El-Hamalawy's written testimonies and the student petition.

The petition further explained that “students on campus have repeatedly been subject to interrogation by security personnel over educational material and the content of lectures. Students have also been questioned regarding the actions and events of different AUC approved organisations/clubs.”  

As a consequence student demands after the revolution have included the “immediate removal of all restrictions on political expression and assembly on campus,” and furthermore, “for AUC administration to disclose all agreements with the Egyptian government and state security and to cut all ties with these forces” and “to maintain from this point forth a complete transparency policy regarding the security of the campus.”

Moreover, the students have demanded the removal of two AUC staff members, namely the head of the security office Ashraf Kamal and director of the office of student development Mahmoud Dabour.

According to AUC student, Mariam Abughazy, both should have their positions revoked because of their background, involvement in violating student freedom and right to privacy as well as their relation to the old regime and its security apparatus.

Kamal is a former state security officer while Dabour is an NDP member responsible for approving and monitoring student activities.

AUC transparency is the pen name the student group issuing the petitions goes by. Their statements are posted via their blog, Facebook page and Twitter.

When contacted by Ahram Online the official response of the university to the campaign was that "The University has established complaint panels to receive complaints about any members of the staff, and all complaints are investigated; however, the University does not discuss publicly personnel issues, which are confidential, including informal accusations against members of the community. 

Only accusations that are provided in writing are investigated. And while the details remain confidential, to protect both those making complaints and those against whom the complaints are made, the results of the investigations are made public".

 AUC has lately been suffering criticism triggered by worker strikes and demonstrations within the university demanding higher wages. It has also been accused of “corporatizing” its institution after it named several rooms, buildings and areas on its new campus after the names of corporations, despite it being a non-profit institution.

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