Spring semester haunted by protests, shadow of university police

Osman El Sharnoubi, Saturday 8 Mar 2014

Many students and professors oppose return of police to university campuses despite vows by Morsi supporters to continue their protests

Cairo uni
Egypt's Cairo University (Photo:Ahram)

After an unusually long break, university students across Egypt will return to campuses on Saturday, a starting date twice delayed as the ministries of higher education and interior scrambled to make security arrangements to prevent a repeat of last semester’s university-related violence.

The ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in July and the deadly dispersal of the sit-in demanding his return in August prompted students supporting the Brotherhood to protest against what they insist was a coup against an elected president.

The protests were often violent with pro-Morsi students vandalising some university buildings in a number of incidents and torching police vehicles.

But, these protests were met sometimes with harsher violence by security forces, who are accused of killing at least seven students from the universities of Cairo, Ain-Shams, Al-Azhar and Alexandria.

Dozens of pro-Morsi students were arrested, but some students who are opponents of the Brotherhood and refused to protest alongside them are also in jail.

A court ruling in February sanctioning the return of police on campuses threatens to heighten already existing tensions when school starts.

While police regularly entered campuses last semester to face demonstrators, especially after a government decision allowing university heads to call in police when needed, the permanent presence of government security on campuses was abolished after the 2011 revolution.

In 2010, after decades of interference in student and faculty affairs, a widely celebrated court order barred police from campuses. The order, however, was only enforced after the 2011 revolution.

“The expulsion of police from the university was a revolutionary gain and didn’t materialise just because of the court order,” Islam Fawzy of Helwan University’s student union told Ahram Online.

“If the interior ministry decides to abide by the new court order it will bring more chaos to the situation."

Fawzy believes that instead of curbing violence, the police’s return to campuses could increase tensions, encouraging more students to mobilise against the security forces thus stoking further unrest.

“The relationship between students and the police is already strained outside of campuses; do they really want to bring it inside?” Fawzy asks.

The main group that carried out violent acts were pro-Morsi students so, Fawzy believes, it is “stupid” to provoke more students to protest, especially when authorisation already exists to request police intervention in emergencies.

Invalid ruling

The recent court ruling is null and void because the court does not have the jurisdiction to rule on such cases, argues Ahmed Ezzat, the head of the legal unit at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a rights NGO that closely follows freedoms at Egyptian universities.

The recent ruling, issued by the Court for Urgent Matters, does not have the power to trump the initial ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) which barred police from operating in universities.

The SAC stipulated that its ruling could be overturned only by an administrative court; therefore any rulings pertaining to the case by other courts are of no value.

“Whether police are allowed in universities or not is a strictly administrative issue, the Court for Urgent Matters has no business deciding on it,” Ezzat tells Ahram Online.

Cairo University political science professor Mustafa Kamel El-Sayyed -- a founder of the 9 March Movement for Independence of Universities -- makes the same argument as Ezzat, but adds that if the police believe they can use the ruling to consolidate their control over universities as they once did, they are gravely mistaken.

Any move by the interior ministry to return to campuses will backfire immediately, El-Sayyed asserts adding that students and professors alike will mobilise against such a decision.

Controlling violence

Many students and professors are still worried about acts of violence carried out by Brotherhood supporters on campus, such as at Al-Azhar when student protesters trashed the university’s administrative offices.

But El-Sayyed believes university administrative security -- security guards not part of the interior ministry -- should be responsible for keeping universities safe.

“The administrative security is getting better at handling violent situations, they should be trained more to do so instead of resorting to methods which would invariably hinder the freedom of intellectual and political activity within the university,” El-Sayyed says.

Likewise, Ain-Shams University computer science student Abdel-Rahman Ali says the administrative guards should be capable of maintaining security. “The presence of police on campus, with or without legal authorisation, is wrong,” he states.

Wary of the stigma concerning the issue, the interior ministry has repeatedly said it does not wish to interfere in university affairs. An interior ministry aide said on Monday that police would remain off campus and that plans have been drawn up to allow for quick intervention if violence breaks out.

Higher Education Minister Wael El-Degwy says the police's presence on campuses will not be like in the past and their entrance will be subject to requests from university presidents and deans.

Dozens of Al-Azhar students -- where clashes were most violent last semester -- have been jailed by misdemeanour courts. In January and February, over 80 students received sentences ranging from one and a half to three years in prison. Most of the sentences are being appealed.

Pro-Morsi students are planning to continue protesting. In a statement issued on Wednesday, Students Against the Coup -- the main pro-Morsi student group -- vowed to resume their “movement and struggle” against “the coupists.”

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