Student Elections in Egypt: A Potential Step Forward

In December 2015, the Student Union of Egypt held annual elections for the first time in over two years. The Supreme Council of Universities suspended elections in March 2013, and continued to postpone them until now. University students blamed the government for the decision, accusing it of attempting to control a volatile, anti-government student movement.

When the dust settled, independent candidates had won twelve of the fourteen positions in the seven higher committees in the Student Union of Egypt. The remaining two positions went to members of student groups known for their support for the government. This pattern repeated itself throughout elections on the university and faculty levels, possibly heralding a renewed independence of the student unions. While the results of the election of the President and Vice-President of Student Union of Egypt have been announced, they have yet to be endorsed by the Ministry of Higher Education. The Ministry had also suspended this year’s elections of Egypt student union, which included all 23 governmental and public universities, for an extra week, with the vote beginning on December 6 instead of November 29.

The Student Union Structure

The Egyptian student union system is a complex one. Each of the 23 public universities have their own local student union chapter, with a president and vice president at the helm. Within each university, each individual faculty (or school) also has a president and vice president position. In each faculty, student unions are divided into seven committees (sports activities, political and cultural, public service, art, social activities and student affairs, student groups and trips, and science and technology) with two members in each committee representing the freshman, junior, sophomore, and senior classes. All of these committees and groups fall under the umbrella of the Student Union of Egypt.

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Most of the students who ran in this year’s election fell into one of four categories:

  1. Independent students with no political affiliations who ran alone.
  2. Independent students with no political affiliations but who joined forces as one coalition over common causes.
  3. Students within blocs affiliated with parties known for backing the government such as the Mostaqbal Watan Party, which secured around 50 seats in the parliamentary elections.
  4. Students within blocs affiliated with opposition parties such as the Strong Egypt and the Dostour parties.

Three of the main coalitions running in the elections were:

Mostaqbal Watan Coalition: This coalition was founded by Mohammed Badran, the former president of the Student Union of Egypt, in December 2013. Badran, and his nascent political party under the same name, are now known for their support of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. When the political party was formed in November 2014, many of its leading members of the campaign in universities had graduated and joined the party. As a result, the coalition’s strength on campus has considerably weakened. The coalition failed to secure any seats in the highest echelons of the student union,the executive office of the Student Union of Egypt.

Voice of Egypt’s Students: This coalition was newly formed in the 2014-2015 academic year, and is also considered a pro-government group. Many of its conferences appeared to have been organized in collaboration with the Ministry of Higher Education. During the student union elections, the coalition included the Ministry logo on its membership forms. The Ministry of Higher Education however has denied any connection with the movement.

University Dream: Students affiliated with two of Egypt’s main opposition parties – the Dostour Party and the Strong Egypt Party – banded together in this coalition. Many of its members served in the 2013 Student Union, and their candidate, Amr al-Helw, secured the position of Vice President of the Student Union of Egypt.

Two Years of Government Measures

Following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, much of the Egyptian protest movement was concentrated on university campuses. As a result, during the 2013-2014 academic year, 892 students were arrested. During the 2014-2015 academic year, another 761 students were arrested. A total of 994 other students have faced disciplinary sanctions, with 286 expelled in the last academic year. Twenty students have been killed in violent clashes with security forces during university protests since 2013.

The government also issued a decree in November 2013, granting police the power to enter university campuses without administrative permission and without prior notification. This decree has led to frequent incidents during which police have intervened to quell student protests. A decree issued in October 2014, transferring the crimes of damaging public facilities, including universities, to the purview of the military prosecution—has resulted in the referral of 89 students to military courts in the last academic year.

On the administrative side, on October 18, 2015, the Ministry of Higher Education issued an amendment to the Financial and Administrative Regulations of Student Unions, just one month prior to the student elections. The amendment dictated rules for candidacy, including an established record of student activities, which automatically excludes first year students from participation. The regulations also state that candidates must not be members of a terrorist organization. This wording prevents students affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, labeled a terrorist group by the government, from running. Additionally, potential candidates must not have faced any disciplinary sanctions during their university career. These amendments led to the exclusion of as as many as 1,537 students who attempted to run, according the Supreme Committee of Student Elections.

As a result of all of these measures, this year’s student elections were marked by a lack of political verve and competition. In just over half of the cases nationwide documented by the Association for Freedom and Thought Expression, seats were won uncontested. In a number of faculties, 100 percent of the documented seats were uncontested, and in some instances, no students ran for the seats at all. The elected Student Union Council may appoint students to the empty seats, but those appointed cannot run for leadership positions or vote on union decisions. This, however, remains unclear as there are no written regulations on this situation.

According to statements made to EgyptSource by candidates running in the elections, those belonging to opposition movements and political parties felt it was in their best interest to avoid party slogans. They focused instead on issues such as student aid, the development of educational services, health care, and housing.

Election Results

Despite a lack of participation, a key takeaway from this year’s election results is a strong showing by independent candidates, and the contrasting weak performance of government-affiliated groups like the Mostaqbal Watan and the Voices of Egypt’s Students.

Shifts within individual movements after leading members graduated from university, the conflict on campuses, and the banning of on-campus political activities likely contributed to this change. Independent candidates also far outnumbers political activists in this year’s elections.

Student Union of Egypt Results: Abdullah Anwar, an independent candidate, and president of the Cairo University Student Union, emerged victorious as President of the Student Union of Egypt. Amr El Helw, a candidate associated with the Dream University list, and president of Tanta University, was elected Vice President. Only independent candidates were elected as presidents of the seven higher committees, which means they are also members of the executive office of the Student Union. Only two members of the Voice of Egypt’s Students secured positions as vice presidents in the seven higher committees.

Level 5 Results: Of the 46 students elected as presidents or vice presidents of university student unions, 32 were independent candidates. Of the remaining successful candidates, seven came from independent coalitions, four were from the Voice of Egypt’s Students, two were from the University Dream bloc, and a final candidate from the Egyptian Democratic Party won the vice presidency at Banha University.

Level 4 Results: Results of the elections in Level 4, which has 14 seats in each university, show that the Voice of Egypt’s Students and the Mostaqbal Watan list won three seats at the University of Menoufia, three seats at Aswan University, and 10 seats at Banha University. Independent candidates won all of the seats in Minya, Port Said, Alexandria, and Kafr al-Sheikh universities. Independent candidates and independent lists won the majority of level 4 seats at the universities of Assiut, Cairo, and Fayoum. University Dream won all 14 Level 4 seats at Tanta University, and hold every seat on the Student Union Councils at eight of Tanta University’s 13 faculties.

Mohamed Abdel Salam is a researcher at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression

Image: Photo: Cairo University (Faris Knight/Creative Commons)