Revolutionary road

As the fallout from the Arab Spring continues, David Matthews reports from Cairo on the birth - and troubled infancy - of the student union movement in Egypt

April 26, 2012

Source: Getty

We have more to say: students played a major role in Mubarak’s downfall and are now targeting Scaf

Two years ago, before the overthrow of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, student leaders in Egypt gathered to form a national students’ union.

The first meeting was a success, but on the day of the second, most of the union presidents mysteriously failed to materialise. Farah Yousry, who was to be responsible for the national union’s press activities, later found out why: state security had been busy making phone calls warning them not to attend.

“They were afraid to come,” recalls Yousry, editor-in-chief of the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) student newspaper, Caravan. As a result, the initiative was “just shattered”, she says.

Now, 15 months after the start of mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that forced Mubarak to resign and cowed his security machine, Egypt’s students finally have their chance. The new national Egyptian Student Union has been organised and Egypt’s student body, which played a key part in the revolution, sees itself as a powerful force in the country’s post-revolutionary political scene.

All this is a long way from the picture painted by a 2005 report from Human Rights Watch, the non-governmental organisation, titled Reading Between the ‘Red Lines’: The Repression of Academic Freedom in Egyptian Universities.

This described state security disqualifying, detaining and even torturing students who ran for student union positions or demonstrated on campus. University presidents and faculty deans were politically appointed, the report said, and “repression by government authorities and private groups…affected every major component of university life”.

“Censorship stops professors from teaching certain books,” the report added. “Permit requirements for surveys block research in the social sciences. University officials and police limit student activities outside the classroom. State security forces often respond violently to campus demonstrations.”

This all helped to create an environment of self-censorship in Egyptian universities. “Professors and students acknowledge that there are certain subjects - chiefly politics, religion and sex - that they will discuss only in a limited way,” the report said.

Now, speakers of all stripes are invited to speak at universities, student protests are a common feature of campus life, and academics in Egypt’s public universities elect their presidents and deans.

Nowhere is the post-revolutionary buzz stronger than on the AUC campus, situated on the eastern outskirts of Cairo. Here, student society stalls pump out bass-heavy Western music, and groups of male and female students (few wearing headscarves) drink coffee together at a Cilantro, Egypt’s answer to Starbucks.

Students from this elite institution were among the first to occupy Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011. The university has a campus next to the square’s roundabout, which was the scene of a bloody battle between protesters and government snipers. Today, it is covered in graffiti decrying the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), the junta that took power after the uprising and that is now supposedly shepherding Egypt towards democracy.

It was at the AUC that the first national meeting of Egyptian student union presidents was held last August. The seven members of the executive were elected by student presidents and vice-presidents and now meet once a month. Five seats on the executive are reserved for public universities and two for private institutions.

Ahmed Fayed, president of the AUC students’ union and a member of the national executive, says that the Egyptian Student Union now acts as “one body”.

There will eventually be an overall president, but Fayed says that the union is currently in a “transitional period in which we want all people to unite”. Joint projects and exchange visits have been planned to further integrate the component unions, and a law that would enshrine student union independence is being discussed in Parliament.

The first target for demonstrations by the national union was the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in September 2011, in response to the killing of three Egyptian soldiers the previous month by an Israeli helicopter that was reportedly chasing Palestinian militants across the border.

In future, the union could decide to mobilise around foreign policy issues or quarrels with universities themselves, Fayed suggests.

“If we really unite, we will form a very important political mass which will add up to approximately 3 million students,” he says.

However, the union’s clearest target is the Supreme Council. “At the end of every (student union) statement, you see ‘down with Scaf’,” says Yousry.

But for all the prominence of their students during the revolution, Egypt’s Westernised, private universities such as the AUC, the German University in Cairo (GUC) and the British University in Egypt (BUE) represent “less than 1 per cent of the student bodies” in the country, says Omar Ashour, lecturer in the politics of the modern Arab world at the University of Exeter.

There are several reasons for their disproportionate impact, he explains.

“They have the tools and the know-how, the contact with the media, the phones in English, the internet capabilities, the ability to mobilise…they knew how to sell the revolution,” says Ashour, who has been in the thick of Cairo’s political turmoil since moving there on study leave in January in time for the anniversary of the beginning of the protests. Some of his friends were injured in attempts to stop clashes in Tahrir Square in early February this year. Afterwards, he collected tear gas canisters and rubber bullets fired at protesters by police.

Elsewhere, at Al-Azhar University, the 10th-century institution that is an intellectual centre for Islam in the region, a “significant percentage, if not the majority” of student union representatives are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, says Ashour.

The party, banned and persecuted under Mubarak, bills itself as a relatively moderate religious group. It won around 47 per cent of the seats in Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections. It has also made strong gains among student representatives at Cairo and Alexandria universities, Ashour says.

But the greatest proportion of Egypt’s students is “the non-ideological type, the type that is very angry at the status quo, as it has not delivered on the revolutionary ideals, the goals of the revolution, the dignity, the freedoms”, he says.

The sense of frustration is clear when speaking to students crowding on to campus next to Cairo University’s vast central domed building, where the familiar slogan “No Scaf” has been sprayed on to the walls.

“The president of the university is the same,” complains Mohammed Zordok, a second-year political science student. “They changed the dean but she has the same system,” which is, he claims, still stifled by bureaucracy.

His friends are equally pessimistic, arguing that the proliferation of military trials under the Supreme Council has made Egypt more not less repressive since the revolution.

It is unclear how many ordinary Egyptians sympathise with the newly politicised students. One first-year political science student says she feels there is hostility from the rest of the country: “They think you are trying to bring the country down, you are traitors and stuff like that.”

The high tuition fees and free mixing of the sexes at Egypt’s private universities add to suspicions of their being a subversive, decadent elite. Yousry explains that one of her friends had to ask a taxi driver to drop him off near the AUC because he did not want to reveal that he was a student there. The driver responded: “Oh, good, you’re not going to the AUC, where girls are walking around with bikinis and they pay a million dollars per month.”

“In films, the girl or the guy from the AUC is so spoilt,” Yousry says.

But there are more serious threats to the university and institutions like it than cultural stereotypes. The climate for Western-linked organisations in Egypt has grown more difficult after the arrest of more than 40 pro-democracy NGO workers, 16 of whom are Americans, for allegedly illegally receiving foreign funds.

Egypt is currently awash with conspiracy theories, and Ashour describes bizarre allegations linking the AUC with Zionists and Freemasons spread by a popular, demagogic Egyptian television station, Al-Faraeen, that makes the US’ Fox News “look very progressive”, as he puts it.

In February, the university was accused in a statement posted on Facebook by the Supreme Council of being a “tool” of the US and of plotting to “destroy Egypt by the hands of its sons”.

Accusations such as this are part of the “cost of doing business”, according to Lisa Anderson, the AUC’s president - US universities have long been subject to similar attacks for supposed subversion on their home soil, she says.

In Egypt, however, these kinds of insinuation are new. “Here, people get rattled by it because they’re not used to it,” says Anderson.

One of the things the university has had to work out, she explains, is which claims to respond to.

During the trial in January this year of Habib El-Adly, the deposed Egyptian interior minister, for example, his lawyer said that rather than his client giving orders for protesters to be fired upon during the uprising, AUC guards had been responsible for shooting demonstrators in Tahrir Square.

A “very quick, very firm denial” was issued, says Anderson. “We do have to respond to some things that ordinarily are so patently ridiculous you wouldn’t dignify them with a response.”

Academics have been swept up in the revolution as well, although often in a rather different way from the students. In April 2011, Ashour visited Kafr El Sheikh University, a public institution north of Cairo, and found that the running of the university had been taken over by the students’ union.

“We basically entered the dean’s office…and the dean had fled,” Ashour explains.

Although presidents and deans in public universities are now elected by their fellow academics, it would be a mistake to think that this has entirely swept away the old guard. In the polls conducted last autumn, many incumbents were re-elected, including Hossam Kamel, the head of Cairo University, who was reported to have said that he was glad to be “rid of the stigma of being appointed by the now dismantled state security”.

Concerns were raised at the time by the 9 March group of academics, which campaigns for scholarly freedom, that the existing faculty simply felt that their own interests coincided with those of the existing heads, and that opposition candidates had withdrawn.

Anderson views these elections as a short-term solution to the entrenched political infiltration of Egyptian universities, but sees two problems in the longer term. “It scales up departmental politics to the level of the university as a whole. And it means it’s very hard for people to move from one university to another,” she says.

Candidates from elsewhere in Egypt or the world would have little chance of being elected, she argues. The Egyptian system has very little internal circulation of faculty, she says, adding that rather than being international, “it’s not even national”.

And there is still plenty of state control. Universities - even private institutions - have to seek approval from the government if they want to alter their curricula, and they can make changes only once every four years - a pace of change that sounds a million miles slower than the student demand-led system being introduced in England this autumn.

Nadia El Kholy, a professor of English at Cairo University, argues that under Egypt’s slow system, academics become tired of teaching “stale” courses. She has to get round the restrictions by giving the courses broad titles such as “Shakespearean plays”, allowing her to alternate those that are taught.

More positively, the removal of Mubarak has liberated scholars to pursue projects designed to help the community. At the BUE, for example, a group called Engineers for Change is planning to visit Cairo’s slum areas to see how they could improve their safety and sewerage systems.

“Government is more receptive to these ideas [now],” says Yehia A. Bahei-El-Din, associate dean of engineering.

Another senior-year project run out of the BUE’s architectural engineering department aims to help Egypt’s police stations (some of which were reportedly the scenes of torture before and during the revolution) enter a new era, for example by improving their lighting and appearance to make them less intimidating.

With the military in charge, however, there are still “sensitive” areas, Bahei-El-Din admits. “If you talk about engineering - by all means. If you talk about NGOs - be careful,” he says, laughing.

One of the most important tasks now facing Egypt is the drafting of a new constitution, and scholars from Cairo University and elsewhere held a two-day conference in mid-March to discuss what form it should take.

Their draft envisages a British-style parliamentary system rather than the strongly presidential set-up used by Mubarak, explains Mustapha Al-Sayyid, a political science professor at the university.

Speaking about the likelihood of success for the scholars’ draft, he predicts: “I think most of the articles related to human rights…will be accepted. What will be controversial will be the articles related to the system of government.”

Much of the direction of Egypt’s universities now depends on the presidential election on 23 and 24 May, and subsequent haggling between parties in Parliament over how they will divide up the government and decide the form of the country’s constitution.

Outside Egypt, the revolution is often seen to have been led by liberals but ultimately taken over by Islamists, who won around 70 per cent of the parliamentary vote in January. However, students draw a clear distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood, which won around 47 per cent, and the hardline Salafist party, Al-Nour, which took around 24 per cent.

The brotherhood is “not against mixing genders, they are moderate”, says Ameen Gouda, student union president at the BUE. “Even though I’m a liberal - I’m against them in many ways - at least I know that they are moderate, but the extreme Islamists actually are against that.”

A translation of Al-Nour’s manifesto on its website says that Egypt should remove anything contrary to “true Islam” in the curriculum and “consider the special nature of women in the development of curricula”, because “not all that is good for a man [is] fit for women”.

There have been ominous signs on the campus of Cairo University already, says El Kholy, who has observed that students have been voluntarily segregating themselves on campus over the past few years.

“It’s not something that is said out loud…but you will find [that in lectures] they divide into [genders],” she says.

In May last year, Islamist students at Cairo University demanded that Romeo and Juliet be banned from the curriculum for its “un-Islamic” ending featuring multiple suicides and that certain feminist works also be removed - although many students spoke up for the texts and the row blew over, says El Kholy.

For all its rage against the old machinery of state, the new student movement is led exclusively by men. Asked how many of the 40 presidents who attended the last national meeting were female, Fayed makes a zero with his thumb and index finger.

“Maybe girls don’t like to play politics, maybe a girl runs and she’s not that qualified,” he speculates.

But for all the clouds on the horizon, Anderson says she is “not that worried” about academic freedom in Egypt. In Egyptian politics, she believes, the “centre” is simply too powerful to permit “debilitating” changes that would stifle it.

“For this region, this is the 1960s. This is the youth bulge and [people are saying] ‘we want to remake our societies’,” she argues.

Ashour says that the students and Egyptian youth have been “ridiculed, talked to as the ‘lost generation’, as the generation that will not do anything. But it turns out that this generation has more or less placed Egypt on the right path after the older generations wasted it.”

Offside: how the port said football massacre sparked protest at Cairo’s universities

The clash between figures from the old regime and the emboldened student movement engulfed the German University in Cairo (GUC) in March, when students occupied the institution’s front entrance and even began hunger strikes in protest at what they perceived to be the politically motivated expulsion of two students.

Speaking amid the tents clustered outside the GUC’s main entrance on the 14th day of the sit-in, Hassan Osman Ziko said he and another student were expelled after the authorities took a dislike to a campus protest against the Supreme Council held in the wake of the Port Said massacre on 1 February, when 74 people died in a football riot that broke out between supporters of Cairo club Al-Ahly and local club Al-Masry.

Among those killed were five Cairo University students, one from the American University in Cairo and another, Karim Khouzam, from the GUC. Many Egyptians blamed the Supreme Council for permitting - or even encouraging - the violence in revenge against Al-Ahly supporters, many of whom had occupied Tahrir Square along with other revolutionaries.

More than 1,000 GUC students demanded a memorial for Khouzam and the removal of Mubarak’s name from foundation stones on the campus, Ziko said.

A further round of noisy protests followed, after which the university accused Ziko and the other expelled student, Amr Abdel Wahhab, of “verbally abusing and insulting” the university’s disciplinary committee. The chief target of the students’ heckling was Ibrahim El-Dimeery, a GUC trustee, head of its disciplinary committee and formerly transport minister under the Mubarak regime.

El-Dimeery was minister when a fire on a train in 2002 killed more than 350 people. As a result, said Ziko, during the protests the students chanted that El-Dimeery was a “killer”.

The protesters are seeking El-Dimeery’s removal, although Ziko said that this is not the priority. “Students have a very bad relationship with the old regime. They have a lot of anger,” Ziko said. “The old regime is still using the same methods to silence us.”

One of the GUC’s trustees is Amin Mubarak, a cousin of the ousted president.

The expulsion row prompted an eight-day hunger strike by students, said Ziko.

When Times Higher Education visited the sit-in, around 100 students marched through the GUC campus and formed a ring around the university’s main gate, shouting out chants - one to the tune of Old MacDonald Had a Farm, another to that of Vindaloo, the parody of English football songs, released in the late 1990s.

GUC security would not allow THE to take any photographs of the demonstration from inside the campus.

The sit-in has become a political football in the ongoing Egyptian presidential race, and has been visited by several candidates including Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood head and student union leader who is now touted as a moderate front-runner.

He was reported to have said that the GUC’s decision to expel students was “arbitrary and unfair” and that the institution should be controlled by students and academics, not “security officials” or the “interior minister”.

There is also a wider clash between many students and the university over the independence and scope of the students’ union, with the current body seen by many as having been appointed by the university and therefore illegitimate.

In a statement issued on 17 March, the university said that the union “is a place for intellectual discussions, but not for political disputes”. It made it clear that the union would not be granted independence.

The GUC later reversed its decision to expel the students, handing them two-week suspensions instead. This ended the sit-in, although demands for El-Dimeery’s removal continue.

Meanwhile, five students were injured at a sit-in at Cairo University the same month in protest at laws governing student unions.

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