Police state Egypt: Crackdown on campus

Police state Egypt: Crackdown on campus
Egyptian students are seeing the state's crackdown on opposition on campus, with fear and restrictions leading to suffocating environments in places of learning.
8 min read
21 November, 2016
University students in Egypt expect to face some tough days ahead [AFP]

Just a week before Egypt's annual student union elections were due to be held, the education minister cancelled them altogether. It was a move that highlighted how freedoms in Egypt's universities are increasingly curtailed under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

"It's a big disaster," said Dina Galal, a political science student coming out of a last minute union meeting. There was a rushed plan to launch a student awareness campaign in response to the latest ministerial decision.

As the current president of her faculty's student union, Galal had expected the ministry's verdict to be tough. She also feared a return to the 1979 student regulations - known as the "state security by-laws" - and the proceeding 2007 amendments.

Elected and shackled

As the new academic year started in September, the minister of higher education announced that this year's elections would not elect overall Egyptian Student Union (ESU) body.

The ESU, an umbrella union made up of representatives of universities' student unions, is the top entity that connects elected student leaders across the country.

There has been a contentious debate over the past year between the government and the students.

The education ministry claimed that last year's elections were held according to student by-laws amended in 2007, which did not set out the formation of the ESU.

Student leaders said that the elections were regulated by additional laws passed in 2013, which in fact stipulated the ESU's formation.

In December 2015, student elections were held for the first time in more than two years. They were initially welcomed as a sign of progress, despite interference from security and obstacles to the participation of some students.

In the end, thousands of Egyptian students voted for pro-revolution candidates at the expense of government-affiliated student groups.

Independents also won 12 of the 14 positions in the Student General Union. Cairo University's student union President Abdallah Anwar and Tanta University student union President Amr al-Helw were elected as the ESU's president and vice-president respectively.

In response, the higher education ministry nullified the election results arousing outrage within the student community.

"The two general union leaders openly support the 25 January revolution and stand for student rights, in opposition to the ministry's line. The government doesn't approve of that," noted Ahmed Abdel Galil, former president of the faculty of political science's student union at Cairo University.


Activism in Egyptian universities in becoming increasingly suppressed over the past three years, with many restrictions hindering university freedoms.

The 2011 revolution offered a defining moment for students calling out for the freedom and autonomy of student unions from the state and university interference. Also demanded was the free practice of student activities and major reforms to the education system.

When graduate Abdel Galil joined Cairo University in 2012, he and his fellow students "took a breath" after years of dictatorship by gaining a freedoms and a greater space for activism.

The new regulations introduced in 2013 brought some improvements to the older legislation. Compared to the amended 2007 by-laws, the new provisions granted some improvements for student union representatives.

It safeguarded the right to have an elected student union, legalised the ESU, and students did not require permission from the university administration to organise activities on campus.

When in July 2013 a military-backed coup toppled President Mohamad Morsi, the police state resurfaced and the security apparatus reverted to its old ways. This chiefly involved intelligence agents interfering in student activities, while authorities quashed universities' independence, and students' freedoms.

There is the need for permission from the university for every event that we plan, and a fear of running any political activities.
- Dina Galal, student union rep

"Today's students are disconnected from any kind of serious discussion, as they are told not to think or talk. The rest of them are depressed. Those who had hopes now want to migrate, study abroad, or just get away from here," said Abdel Galil.

Many student groups believe it is impossible to obtain permits from universities for different types of activities - particularly political-related ones, unless of course they toe the government's line.

Blocking progress

State security intervention, bureaucratic obstacles, and misinterpretation of university by-laws have often been cited as some of the biggest obstacles faced by student groups.

A law was passed in 2014 banning student activities associated with political groups.

This was circumvented by various politically-alligned student groups by changing their names or the descriptions of activities in papers submitted to university authorities.

A political satire event featuring Mada Masr cartoonist Mohamed Andeel at Cairo University was cancelled. The university administration then declared the suspension of all activities under the pretext that students should be preparing for the upcoming examinations.

Events which do not typically get approval from university authorities are political discussions, talks on social and human rights, refugees, or religion, according to both Galal and Abdel Galil.

The two underlined a clear difference between Cairo University's administration - which tends to side with the state over students - and the political science faculty's administration - which is supportive of student freedoms.

"There is the need for permission from the university for every event that we plan, and a fear of running any political activities. This way the regime is limiting student actions... and taking freedom of thought and speech away from universities," voiced Galal.

As if this wasn't enough, several student movements have warned that the regime is now seeking to reinstate the much harsher 2007 amended regulations.

This is to ensure the state has better control over the union electoral process, and prevent independent figures from emerging, explained Mohammed Nagy, head of the student freedom and rights unit at the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).

Student unions are reduced to organising harmless entertainment activities such as cultural, music, poetry and sports events, or cinema and book clubs.

Salah El-Qady runs a website called Shafaff.com focusing on news about student activities in Egyptian universities.

When it was set up in March 2014, the site served as an alternative source of information about student activism from within Egyptian campuses.

It worked in conjunction with demonstrations at universities which were otherwise covered by predominantly state-led media.

Over a thousand students have been expelled from universities for participating in public events since 2013.

At that time, the team at Shafaff were "smart" in selecting which news to cover, reducing the political articles on the website to around 20 or 25 percent of total coverage, Qady said.

Over the past two years, the network has evolved to cover a variety of non-political events across universities in Egypt.

In the current climate - with a sharp drop in student activities due to the growing clampdown - student movements have had to adapt to survive and turned away from political activities.

"Political student groups now reach out to students by advocating for their rights and voicing their educational needs without saying they're against Sisi, the interior minister, or the university president," said a Shafaff manager.

Study in silence

Disappointed students in post-revolution Egypt have no other option but to look ahead, continue their education, and strive to make the best of their university time, he argued.

Universities have always been breeding grounds for new ideas and students inspire change in society, but this is the antithesis of what Sisi wants for Egypt.

"The regime acts like parents who lock their children at home," Qady said. "They want people to know nothing other than what is delivered through al-Ahram or any state-run media. But how can you do that in the age of Facebook?"

Regime repression against students goes beyond tightening legislation and limiting or suppressing student assembly, or oppression can be more forthright and dangerous.

Over a thousand students have been expelled from universities for participating in public events since 2013, according to Nagy.

Amendments were introduced to student by-laws in 2014 which gave university heads the power to expel students without warning or investigation.

"In the last three years, at least 3,000 students have been arrested or incarcerated and around 21 killed by security officials on campuses for taking part in protests," the student rights researcher estimated.

An AFTE's annual report stated that in 2012, 12 students were killed, 760 were arrested, 673 were expelled, 23 were referred to military courts, and 31 were removed from dormitories.

Al-Azhar University - renowned as Sunni-Islam's most prestigious university - is a special target of authorities.

The association also reported 1,552 violations against Egyptian students in the 2014-2015 academic year.

Religious revival

Among the students that have been imprisoned or expelled include many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, or students suspected of Islamist leanings. Others have been youth of other political movements that have protested against the government.

Many of those arrested are subjected to assault or torture. Most student prisoners are put in pre-trial detention for weeks, months or longer - some have been locked up since 2013.

Al-Azhar University - renowned as Sunni-Islam's most prestigious university - is a special target since many students are thought to belong - or sympathise with - the Muslim Brotherhood, more so than any other Egyptian university.  

Besides the university's conservative, religious make-up with Islamist sympathies among its students, Nagy said its location in Cairo's Nasr City is also critical.

This is also where the headquarters of the state security apparatus is located, and Rabaa al-Adawiya Square - the scene of pro-Morsi protests in summer 2013 - is close by.

The area still raises fears that tensions could spiral out of control and cause clashes between university students and security personnel.

Al-Azhar University witnessed the highest frequency of demonstrations against the regime compared with other Egyptian universities in the two years since Morsi was ousted.

Last month, eight al-Azhar university students were arrested for calling for protests on 11 November amid complaints on social media about the dire state of the economy and rising prices.

The students were accused of being part of a banned organisation, inciting against the regime, and calling for its overthrow. Their fate reflects the growing authoritarianism of both state and academia, and their intolerance of debate or questioning - the very hallmarks of university life elsewhere in the world.