Despite a postponement in the start of classes and a preemptive arrest campaign designed to forestall protest, Egypt’s university campuses saw significant demonstrations during the first week of classes in October 2014. To date, there have been at least 58 protests across eighteen university campuses in which more than 100 students were arrested or expelled. As the Egyptian government’s crackdown on dissent broadened over the last year—with extensive harassment of nongovernmental organizations and media and a November 2013 protest law that mandates a minimum of two years’ imprisonment for vague offenses such as “violating public order”—university campuses have increasingly been in the crosshairs as one of the last remaining spaces for dissent. The question now is whether new security and administrative measures will succeed in quieting students whose protests have shone a spotlight on the fact that popular support for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi comes largely from older Egyptians.
Since the July 2013 ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, the group Students Against the Coup has regularly staged protests at national universities, particularly at Cairo University and al-Azhar. In response, the police repeatedly entered university campuses during the previous academic year. During the 2013–14 academic year, at least sixteen students were killed on university campuses and hundreds were arrested. Cairo University expelled 94 students, while the president of al-Azhar expelled 76. In the infamous Abu Zaabal prison, 49 students detained at al-Azhar began an open-ended hunger strike on September 5, 2014.
For the 2014–2015 academic year, Egyptian authorities and university administrators have taken a number of controversial steps. Some steps are directly related to security, notably the hiring of a private firm called Falcon, reportedly owned by prominent former generals and businessmen, to control university campuses. Minister of Higher Education El-Sayed Abdel Khalek said these new guards will ensure that only students, faculty, and staff enter the gates of the universities and they will quell any instances of political unrest that spring up among the students on campus. Cairo University also installed new security cameras, set up metal detectors, and restricted the number of entry and exit points on campus. Al-Azhar, which experienced significant violent demonstrations last year, delayed the application process for student dormitories so that students would not be able to move in until mid-October, after the start of classes.
Other measures are part of an unabashed effort to shut down student politics—and not only those emanating from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood political party, which was banned after his removal from the presidency and later declared a terrorist organization. Cairo University has instituted a ban on politically affiliated student activities, al-Azhar has banned groups connected to political parties, and Ain Shams University has banned political activity and demonstrations. Al-Azhar has also added a new clause to its housing agreement, saying that students must agree not to protest or engage in any political activities while residing in the residence halls, or risk expulsion. Cairo University has instituted a freeze on groups affiliated with the Constitution Party, the Strong Egypt Party and the Salafist Nour Party, and Alexandria University already suspended six student groups for alleged religious and political affiliations.
President of Cairo University Jaber Nassar explained the logic behind these steps, saying “You must remove your party cloak at the university gate because it is a place of learning. But regrettably, since the January 25 revolution it has been transformed into a space for political battles.” Though Nassar insisted that “our decision will be imposed on those who oppose the authorities and those who support them, without exception,” other universities have adopted a more partisan approach. Beni Suef and Ain Shams universities have threatened to suspend any students who offend or incite against Sisi or “symbols of the state.”
This blanket ban on political activity may even spill over into secondary schools. At the start of the year, Minister of Education Mahmoud Abo El-Nasr (who is responsible for education below the university level) called for “keeping politics out of school” and announced the drafting of a legislative amendment that would ban political activity in schools.
The university crackdown has not been confined to students. Egyptian authorities have taken steps that go well beyond those of the former president Hosni Mubarak’s era in order to control administrators and faculty. After his election, Sisi reinstated the practice of choosing heads of universities by presidential appointment; they had been elected by deans and faculty for a few years following the 2011 uprising. A proposed amendment to the universities law would have allowed university presidents to dismiss faculty and staff members, bypassing university disciplinary committees; the measure was ultimately dismissed after it drew protests by faculty members calling themselves the March 9 Movement. Meanwhile, there is a new bill under discussion by the cabinet specific to al-Azhar, which would require the suspension of any university teacher, staff member, or student found to be inciting or participating in political demonstrations deemed to be detrimental to the educational process.
The focus on stopping student demonstrations suggests Egyptian authorities are aware of what might be the Achilles’ heel of Sisi’s regime: weak support among the young generation of Egyptians who sparked the uprising against Mubarak in 2011. The Tamarod youth group that mobilized street support for Sisi’s coup against Morsi has since splintered, with some of its founders complaining that they had been naive and were used by the military to overturn the democratic transition. Youth turnout for Sisi’s May 2014 election appears to have been low, in stark contrast to the strong presence of youth as voters, and to a lesser extent as candidates, in the 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections.
Sisi himself has sent a two-part message to Egyptian youth: sorry to have neglected you, but stay out of politics. In a September 27 speech at Cairo University, Sisi adopted a conciliatory, yet paternalistic tone. Calling students his sons and daughters, Sisi acknowledged that initially “the country was unable to communicate in the right way with Egyptian youth,” and expressed his desire for Egyptian youth to be closer to him. He also promised the creation of a national youth council to facilitate communication between the youth and the government, increased opportunities for youth to participate in politics, and scholarships for promising students to study overseas. Previously Sisi had encouraged youth to run in upcoming elections and instructed the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper to organize a conference on youth participation in politics. Yet despite encouraging students to participate in national projects and “the new Egypt,” Sisi also chastised youth for their perceived naïveté and encouraged them to focus on the pursuit of knowledge rather than getting mixed up in activities “with dubious political aims, serving the interests of unpatriotic groups that exploit youth in their efforts to destroy this nation.”
Given the continued lack of employment opportunities, particularly for university graduates, and the marginalization of youth in post-coup formal politics, youth discontent is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Many young people will probably return to the pre-January 2011 state of apathy, but in light of the clashes at Egyptian universities this week, a significant number of students continue to express their discontent with the current political regime. As Sisi raises the cost of discontent, youth will be forced to become more creative in their protests, and some are likely to become more radical.
Egyptian authorities’ current efforts might also have the unintended effect of forcing Islamist and secular groups divided by the July 2013 coup back into some form of cooperation. In fact, students from several secular opposition groups—the April 6 Youth Movement, the Constitution Party, and the Popular Current—joined Muslim Brotherhood-aligned students to sign a statement on October 12 demanding the immediate release of those arrested during the first days of classes. The current hunger-strike campaign also includes youth from across the political spectrum, ranging from Mohamed Soltan, who is the son of a Muslim Brotherhood leader and a U.S. citizen, to the liberal Popular Current activist Ahmed Douma, and the April 6 Movement co-founder Ahmed Maher.
By explicitly banning all political activities, not just those of the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists, Sisi risks alienating politically conscious students who may not have supported Morsi, but who take offense at increased restrictions on freedom of expression and human rights abuses on campus. Such heavy-handed tactics could easily backfire and deepen the divide between the new leader and young Egyptians who came of age politically with the Arab Spring and could still be a powerful force in shaping the country’s future.
Katie Bentivoglio is a junior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program.
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