In Egyptian Universities, On-Going Protests Interrupt an Education
Students gather for a sit-in at Cairo University (credit: Kaylan Geiger)
On the second day in April, traffic was at a standstill throughout Cairo, reduced to the speed of a parking lot. A series of bombings in front of Cairo University amidst on-going student protests rerouted traffic as drivers once again scrambled to avoid Nahda Square.
Protests have swept across university campuses in Egypt since the beginning of the academic year’s first semester in 2013. Students have abandoned classrooms for banners and slogan chanting. While some students, administrators, and government officials demand the protests end, threatening the use of security forces on campus in order to quell expected violence, the protests instead have evolved in their demands and continue in light of persistent threats of interference.
Egypt’s universities, particularly Cairo University, Al-Azhar University, and Ain Shams University, swiftly became a hotbed for protests in September, as students aligned with former President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood protested for his reinstatement. The protests would often end in violence and students being detained by police, facing future suspension, expulsion, and in a number of cases detention while their cases are investigated.
Over the past few months, demands for Morsi’s reinstatement have taken a backdrop to a series of other demands. As more students are locked up in detention their release has taken precedent over time. Slogans and chants demanding for detained students’ release dominate demonstrations, and at the same time students continue to be picked up or suspended for their protesting, creating a cycle of anger that seems without end.
The protests are often labeled pro-Muslim Brotherhood, stemming from the original dominant demand for Morsi’s reinstatement, but that label often glosses over the diversity of the students’ demands. The Brotherhood label mirrors a status quo across Egypt, where any anti-government demonstration or action is deemed a pro-Brotherhood act. In the case of universities, as the situation grows more complex, this label often over simplifies the politics of the state of affairs.
For example, a recent measure that further agitates the hot-tempered situation was an approval to allow security forces to enter campus in the event of violent protests. Many view this as an encroachment on university rights and independence, and it makes student protesters more vulnerable to state punishment instead of internal sentencing by the university. When universities backed the call for security forces to enter campuses, claiming that such a measure would protect the education process, it only fed the fire of student frustration, accelerating protests further.
However, in February 2014, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters once again allowed for police to enter campuses in the event of violence. However, the recent bombings in front of Cairo University on 2 April resulted in the university’s board of deans deciding to allow forces to return to campus.
Yet, the mere existence of the idea that security forces could re-enter campuses at any given time is entirely counter-productive, as students continue their protests, increasing their demand that security forces respect the independence of universities and their perceived freedom to protest despite a government protest law that forbids protests without permits. “The kind of solutions they are using to try to deal with Muslim Brotherhood students is making the situation even worse,” Deputy Director of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression Kholoud Saber told Al-Fanar Media.
On 3 April, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies published a letter signed by eleven organizations that condemned the bombings in front of Cairo University, but further condemned any attempt to employ security forces to handle the situation. The letter says the signatories warn of the “dangers of resorting to security solutions as the only means in facing those crimes and again reiterate that the increase in acts of oppression and arbitrary detentions will only lead to an increase in terrorist acts.”
The entrance of security forces onto university campuses not only usually leads to an escalation in retaliatory violence, it has sometimes led to death.
At a press conference on 5 December, the faculty listed a series of demands, which included the resignation of the now former Minister of Education Hossam Eisa, the removal of police from around Cairo University, the release of detained students, among other demands. In addition to the faculty’s demands, engineering students made clear that they are not aligned with Students Against the Coup, who have been at the forefront of pro-Brotherhood protests on campus throughout the year.
Faculty of Engineering students held protests in honor Reda, claiming to be of a non-sectarian nature in order to seek justice for the crime committed against him. According to one engineering student, Mohamed, their demands are simple. They want justice for the lives lost and affected and they will not rest until justice is achieved.
With protests ongoing and unlikely to end, students similar to Khaled are receiving an education far different from what they would receive in the classroom.
However, for Khaled the risk is worth taking. “We do this because we feel that it is right.”