Revolution on campus: Who will Egypt students vote for?

Saturday 19 May 2012

Following a year of losing colleagues in protests, campus sit-ins and campaigns to remove corrupt faculty deans, students are agreed on one thing - the new president must respect their dignity

Students want president who respects them and their demands (Photo: AP)

In front of Cairo University lies the famous Al-Nahda Square, where students gathered from across Egypt to protest the war on Iraq, the first and second Palestinian Intifadas, police interference within universities, and many other issues.

Now the site is full of posters for different presidential candidates. Photos cover the statue of Al-Nahda (Renaissance) that dates back to the 1920s by renowned artist Mahmoud Mokhtar. Today, it is Nasserist  Hamdeen Sabbahi, Islamist thinker Mohamed Selim El-Awa and former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq; yesterday, it was liberal Islamist  Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, former Mubarak foreign minister Amr Moussa and the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi.

Inside the university, though, students appear more concerned with end of year exams than Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential poll. There are very few posters inside the university itself, but this is in part because university policy bars them.

So who will gain the student vote? Many of the students Ahram Online spoke to have not yet made up their minds. Some were going to vote for Salafist Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail before he was disqualified on grounds of his deceased mother's US citizenship. Others were going to vote for Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh but changed their minds after his televised debate with Amr Moussa.

Campaigning banned by SPEC

In front of the Faculty of Law, a group of students is playing cards. Ouhood Khaled will vote for Hamdeen Sabbahi, while Karim Mohammed and Mahmoud Khalil will vote for Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.

Khaled likes Sabbahi because: “He is an honest man with an honourable history, he is not a liar or a thief. He also doesn’t try to sell religion and he is not too old.” Khaled wears a long skirt, a hijab, and is not involved in any political party or group.

Khalil and Mohamed will vote for Abul-Fotouh because he is “with the revolution and has always fought against the regime.” None of them have read the programmes of the candidates, but they saw their televised interviews.

The decision of the Supreme Presidential Electioral Commission (SPEC) to ban campaigning and hosting presidential candidates on campus met resistance. A statement signed by different student movements at Cairo University on 30 April denounced the decision, deeming that it “tries to limit the student's role in political life.”

In an obvious act of defiance, Hossam Saad El-Din, who volunteers in Hamdeen Sabbahi’s campaign, is wearing a green shirt with Sabbahi’s name and photo, and together with two friends holds a big poster of the same.

"We are campaigning for Hamdeen Sabbahi; we'll make a chain in front of the university and distribute flyers. We will also encourage people to vote for Sabbahi," El-Din said.

What do students want from the post-revolution president?

Mohammed Hassan, in his third year in the Faculty of Commerce, has three priorities: social justice, improving education, and providing work opportunities.

Ahmed Sayed, who studies medicine, has one demand for the president: security. “I go for training in hospitals and I have seen many attacks by thugs.”

Alaa Mohamed, who studies engineering and will vote for Sabbahi, sets her priorities as social justice, dignity and improving education.

Many students' priorities are similar: security, education, jobs, but above all dignity.

Shaimaa Hasan, a law student, is upset that the El-Gizawi case (the arrest and alleged abuse of an Egyptian lawyer in Saudi Arabia in April 2012) happened in post-revolution Egypt, saying the official Egyptian reaction was shameful. "We need a president who respects us and believes that humans are more important than money. Egyptian dignity should be a red line."

Inside the university there is the Student Union with a majority from the Muslim Brotherhood, like most unions after the revolution. There are also independent revolutionary student movements, which have become increasingly powerful. Most movements and unions haven't officially backed any presidential candidate, leaving students the freedom of choose.

The ambience in private universities

To enter Misr University for Science and Technology (MUST) one must get permission from the head of security, General Wesam Salah, a retired assistant to the minister of interior. His office is small with one tiny window on top of the wall, like a prison cell.

"Students are busy with their studies. They pay per hour, so there's very little room for political activism. But there are people from the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, April 6 Movement, and two communists after communism is over," Salah explains.

"Every couple of days someone sprays 'Down with the military regime' on the wall. It is very expensive to clean the walls, and we are a private university."
At this point, the door opens and a security guard storms in, hands a flyer to the general and says "Tamer" is distributing this flyer and hanging it on the walls.

The general: "Stop him."

Security guard: "I tried. He says, this is our university and we have the right to hang flyers."

The general: "Okay. Let him hang them and we will remove them."

He then realises a reporter is still in the room, so he reads part of the flyer, and looks up and says: "This generation has no manners. Down with military regime: how dare they? They haven't seen war. They haven't seen martyrs. Their parents and grandparents didn't tell them to respect to the army."
The sound of chanting interrupts the lecture and I am shown out.

The protest was organised by the group "Our Revolution" against the Abbasiya clashes that killed over 10 protesters, with hundreds injured and arrested, including students.

Tens of students chant "Down with the military regime," "The student movement is free," and "Release our colleagues," along with other revolutionary slogans. Students marched around campus showing photos of the deadly attacks in Abbasiya, calling for an end to the rule of the SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces).

But the upcoming elections doesn't seem to occupy protesters. "I am convinced that no elections should be held under military rule. It is impossible that the SCAF, which is responsible for killing tens of revolutionaries so far, the last in Abbasiya just days ago, can secure our lives let alone fair elections," said Islam El-Nadi, a biotechnology student who is boycotting the upcoming elections.

Not far from El-Nadi stands a group of seven, also engineering students. They are enthusiasticaly debating Amr Moussa or Abul-Fotouh. Six pro-Abul-Fotouh are trying to convince Mohamed Helmi not to vote for Amr Moussa, mainly because he is feloul (a remnant of the former regime). Helmi raises his voice, trying to prove that Moussa's expertise is essential for the coming phase. The discussion continues with accusations traded like in the televised debate: Abul-Fotouh is Muslim Brotherhood, Moussa is feloul.

Overall, the atmosphere in the private university felt more politically charged than at Cairo University.

Who will vote for who

Of 15 students in MUST that Ahram Online asked, one will boycott, one will vote for Amr Moussa, and the rest will vote for Abul-Fotouh. Of 25 students at Cairo University, one will vote for Moussa, one for Shafiq, three for Sabbahi, one for Mohamed Morsi, one for leftist lawyer Khaled Ali, one will boycott, and six will vote for Abul-Fotouh. The rest haven’t decided if they will vote or not, or who will they vote for.

Kholoud Saber, assistant teacher at Cairo University, asserts that "Morsi's campaign is very powerful inside the university. Muslim Brotherhood groups have been working on his campaign for a long time now. It is the most evident campaign on campus." As for revolutionary movements, "they are campaigning for Khaled Ali and Abul-Fotouh," notes Saber. Even though Morsi was pushed to replace the Brotherhood's first candidate, Khairat El-Shater, at the last minute, the strong presence of the Brotherhood in universities secures him many student votes.

The power of the student vote

The student movement gained momentum after the January 2011 revolution. Students took the Tahrir spirit to their universities and tried to change everything: laws and regulations governing student elections, and professors and deans aligned to the former regime. Martyrs' rights were also at the heart of student protests.

In February 2011, hundreds of Egyptian students demonstrated in a number of universities around Egypt to demand the sacking of university deans appointed by the Mubarak regime. The national student union association arranged the demonstrations in solidarity with university professors who announced an open-ended strike. Demands included fair elections for all major faculty positions and replacing all those appointed by the Mubarak regime.

Cairo University witnessed the longest sit-in in the history of Egypt's student movement in the early spring of 2011 when students and professors demanded the expulsion of the dean of the Faculty of Mass Communication, Sami Abdel-Aziz. A prominent figure in Mubarak's National Democratic Party, Abdel-Aziz was no longer welcome post-revolution.

The military police entered campus in March to dispurse the sit-in against Abdel-Aziz. Violence was used against students and some professors in one of the first confrontations between activists and the military. It was only in May that Abdel-Aziz left his post.

The German University in Cairo also witnessed protests against a Mubarak statue; then two students were expelled, which sparked a sit-in and hunger strike at the university in March 2012.

Ain Shams University saw protests against the killing of Alaa Abdel-Hady, a medical student, last December when the military forcibly ended a sit-in near the cabinet office.

Almost all universities witnessed — and still witness — similar protests. This attests to the power of the student movement as a component of the youth of the January 25 Revolution.

No wonder many are eager to know how this youth will vote.

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