Egypt's universities, centers of dissent, reopen under strict new controls

In antigovernment demonstrations last year at Egypt's universities, more than 800 students were arrested and 16 were killed. In response, Egypt has clamped down on security and tightened control over faculties.

Tarek Wajeh/AP/File
A vehicle of the Egyptian security forces bursts into flames amid clashes between security forces and student protesters around a student housing area of Al Azhar University in Cairo in May. Egypt's universities are starting the new academic year under much tighter government control.

Walking through her campus at Al Azhar University, Hend feels surrounded by ghosts. “I see the scenes, I see the faces,” she says. “I’ll never feel the same here again.”

Following the Egyptian military’s overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist former president, in July last year, and long after an aggressive police crackdown had restored order to Egypt’s streets, defiance flared across the country’s campuses.

Hend’s fellow protesters, supporters of Mr. Morsi, faced tear gas, rubber bullets and, sometimes, live ammunition. Battle-scars pepper the campus of Al Azhar, a center of Islamic learning for more than a thousand years that is regarded as the preeminent such institution in the world today. Where anti-regime graffiti has been scrubbed off the walls, the space beneath looks unnaturally clean. In some places, pockmarks from bullets remain.

As Egyptian students prepare for the new academic year, starting this Saturday, the authorities are determined to ensure that such violent clashes don’t happen again. Security measures on campuses have intensified, and university authorities have assumed control of faculty elections and won the right to fire outspoken staff.

Student activism has long been an incubator for Egypt’s future politicians. Morsi’s now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, which has a history of handpicking its members from university campuses, has populated the core of Egypt’s post-Morsi student movement.

But any demonstrators who enter Egypt’s newly reinforced campus gates this year are likely to be more subdued. After a long and difficult year, many of last year’s most vociferous students say they are tired and disillusioned.

More than 800 students were arrested during demonstrations last year, according to local monitoring groups. Sixteen were killed.

“Our demands have not changed, but the situation has moved on without us. All we achieved were friends in prison, friends in graves,” says Hend (her family name was withheld for her security), whose large eyes and quiet demeanor belie a fighting spirit that saw her take a leading role in Al Azhar’s Muslim Brotherhood protests.

Weighing the cost of dissent

Because she boycotted her exams last term, she must now repeat her first-year studies. Hend and her friends had worked hard to encourage others to join their protest, but few did in the end.

While students from across Egypt’s political spectrum have shown sympathy with the Brotherhood’s stance against police brutality, its insistence on calling for Morsi's return was a turn-off for many, isolating the group on many campuses.

Hend says she’ll think more carefully about balancing her dissent with her studies this time around. She once hoped to become a translator, but that dream has now been deferred. “I don’t really think about the future any more,” she says. “My life has changed forever.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by many of her friends. Some are looking to move on.

Esraa, one of Cairo University’s approximately 155,000 students, was badly wounded in a protest on Jan. 25th this year. A police bullet pierced the base of her spine, and she was almost paralyzed.

“This cause has taken something big from me,” she says, sitting cross-legged in her room. Seven months on, she is still housebound and unable to walk.

“I still believe in the cause, but what good can we do through demonstrations?”

Dormitory requirements

Anticipating fresh unrest, the authorities at Al Azhar have added new paperwork to applications for university housing. “I promise that I will not participate in any political activities at the university dorms,” reads one form that students must sign in order to secure a bed.

Last year, around 500 students were banned from living on campus.

A private security firm called Falcon has also been hired to secure at least 15 universities across the country. The company has previously been charged with containing Egypt’s notoriously boisterous soccer crowds.

Restrictions will apply to staff, as well. Egypt’s cabinet has approved a new amendment to a statute regulating university employees, allowing the expulsion without appeal of staff members in apparent breach of university regulations.

In his first month in office, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi also issued a decree reintroducing the direct government appointment of university heads, a practice that had been brought to an end after the popular 2011 uprising that led to the overthrow of the entrenched regime of President Hosni Mubarak. 

Critics say the changes – passed without review from faculty councils – will have a significant impact on the independence of universities.

Mohamed Nagy, a researcher at the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, describes the changes as a “sword” in the hands of universities that want to quash dissent.

“They’re rolling back victories won in a long struggle for university independence,” he says. “The authorities are even trying to kill peaceful movements on campus.”

Professors' reaction mixed

Relatively few academics have responded publicly to the changes. Some are supportive, others say they too feel fatigued by the roiling politics of the years since Egypt’s 2011 uprising.

But the changes are not passing without a fight. The March 9 movement, founded by Egyptian professors who wanted to preserve the independence of their universities back in 2004, say they will be discussing the provisions with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Higher Education.

“This is meant to silence all dissident voices, not just the Muslim Brothers. There are many others who have been harmed by recent developments,” says Randa Abu Bakr, a member of the movement and a professor of English Literature at Cairo University.

"This year will be crucial in showing how the student movement can now organize," she says. "The state fears what those students can do."

Additional reporting by Mohamed Ezz.

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