Student Protests: A Microcosm of Egypt’s Street Dynamics

With several months passing since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s universities have become a frontline in the fight between two polarized segments of Egyptian society. While the capital city’s universities – Cairo, Ain Shams and Al-Azhar – universities have witnessed constant protests and clashes for weeks, the struggle has extended into the governorates, with universities in Gharbeya, Sharqiya, and beyond, joining in the unrest. Protests have escalated to the point of shutting down Cairo University’s faculty of engineering before the year’s end, while a crackdown on university grounds has seen students and professors alike swept up in arrests and investigations. Most significantly, security forces have been granted the right to enter campus grounds by the prosecutor’s office, upon request, in an attempt to quell the turmoil.

Student Protests Dominate the Street Movement

Democracy Index, a local organization which issues statistical reports on protests and demonstrations, estimated that 611 student protests were staged in the period from September to early November. 378 protests took place in October alone, showing a 62 percent increase compared to September. The number appears to be on a steady upward trend, with the month of November reported to have witnessed 511 protests. According to Democracy Index, 70 percent of the student protests are politically motivated, while only 25 percent of the protests relate to problems within the universities. Among the 70 percent, almost 63 percent demanded the return of Morsi’s rule or the release of pro-Morsi protesters from detention, while only 6.5 percent staged protests in support of the armed forces, or in protest of Morsi’s supporters’ demands.

As the protests escalate, so does the violence. At Alexandria University, pro-Morsi protesters continue to face-off with pro-army demonstrators on an almost daily basis, according to university student Ahmed Nabil. On October 23, the rival demonstrations were especially violent, with little to no intervention by the university’s administrative security.

Al-Azhar University’s student union, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, has been mobilizing protests both on and off-campus since the start of the academic year on October 19. Student protesters have blocked Al-Nasr road outside the university’s main gate several times, , a move which has been met with violence from security forces, particularly in the wake of a protest law passed by the interim cabinet that forbids protesting without first notifying the ministry of interior.

Al-Azhar University has, in particular, been the sight of violent protests. On October 30, a large anti-coup protest escalated after a number of students stormed the university’s administrative building, sabotaging it. Abdallah Abdel Motaleb, spokesman of Al-Azhar University’s student union, said that the students used violence only after being attacked by employees inside the building. “While the protesters’ violence is justified,” Abdel Motaleb said, “The employees’ violence is systematic.” The violence prompted university president, Osama al-Abd, to call upon security forces to intervene. Upon receiving permission from the public prosecution to enter campus, police forces moved in, arresting at least 26 people.

Police intervention in the Al-Azhar clashes and their “breach of the sanctity of the university campus” was condemned only by the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy and the Students against the Coup movement, alongside a few civil society organizations. 

Unrest at Al-Azhar shows no signs of abating, particularly after a student was killed on campus on November 21. Abdel Ghany Mohamed Mahmoud, a sixth year medical student, was killed during clashes with security forces. As student protests persist, the police have since entered Al-Azhar campus several times, the most recent of which was on December 9.

An Attempt to Quell the Unrest

The response by authorities to the unrest has been severe. On November 13, in one of the harshest sentences in post-Morsi Egypt, 12 Al-Azhar students were each sentenced to 17 years in prison for their roles in attacking the university building on October 30. 

The current cabinet has also considered several preemptive measures to quell the violence. In early September, news reports surfaced regarding a decision to deputize university security personnel, granting them the authority to arrest students. The decision, originally called for by a number of university presidents, was met with wide criticism by students. Several university presidents were quick to announce they will not abide by the decision within their campuses, while Minister of Higher Education Hossam Eissa repeatedly stressed his lack of knowledge regarding the decision.

Almost a month after the decision was first reported, the cabinet officially announced it was nothing more than an “unfounded rumor,” leaving many questioning why this was not announced, when the reports first emerged. The answer was clearly that the cabinet had backpedaled from its earlier decision in an attempt to save face.

While the death of the deputization authority was good news for most students, several faculty staff and public figures have called for stricter measures in handling on-campus violence. Others have also called for prohibiting any political activities on campus.

Immediately after the October 30 clashes at Al-Azhar University,

Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawy’s cabinet gave university presidents the authority to request police forces’ entrance into universities’ campus in the case of “threats to individuals, entities and students.” The cabinet also decided that policemen would be stationed at university gates to help maintain security. In addition to repeatedly entering Al-Azhar University, police forces have since been invited onto campuses at three universities – Mansoura, Zagazig, and Ain Shams.

The Struggle for Campus Security

Until 2009, the Ministry of Interior was responsible for sending state security personnel to secure universities. In 2009, the Administrative Court banned this practice, establishing an “administrative” university security. The decision did not go into effect until after the 2011 uprising.

Hisham Ashraf, the head of the Cairo University student union, describes the decision to grant security personnel entrance onto university campuses after the 2011 uprising as “disastrous.” He says, “It is hard for the same student union which strongly rejected the decision to deputize security to now accept such decision by the cabinet.”  He believes the decision was taken to indirectly “put out the student movement.” Ashraf, who won the elections after running against a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, added that many student protests which have nothing to do with the Brotherhood take place on campus.

Al-Azhar student union’s Abdel Motaleb shares Ashraf’s opinion. He believes that the violent reaction from the Al-Azhar University employees against the protesters on October 30 was meant as a provocation, giving the Al-Azhar University president an excuse to invite police forces onto campus.

While Ashraf is opposed to the solution provided by the cabinet, he acknowledges the security vacuum within university campuses. “In Cairo University, there were around 1,300 policemen and 45 police officers securing campus before 2011,” Ashraf said. “When you replace them with 490 untrained employees, you are bound to have a security gap.” Ashraf, alongside several other student unions nationwide, believe the solution is to increase the number of administrative security personnel and properly train them to secure campuses.

Higher Education Minister Eissa said that when the 2009 court decision was implemented in 2011, the plug was pulled on the budget allocated to securing universities. He repeatedly stressed he will not allow the return of state security onto university campuses.

Between Eissa’s promises, the pro-Morsi movements’ condemnation and unabated student protests, things seem to be at a standstill. Despite the Ministry of Interior’s insistence on linking student protests to the Muslim Brotherhood’s plot to create instability and, as a result, stall Egypt’s political “roadmap,” the protests seem to be gaining momentum by the day.

The National Alliance to Support Legitimacy continues to call for protests in solidarity with the students. While their calls see a limited response, the security forces’ brutal response to student rallies has provoked students who are not necessarily affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or supportive of Morsi, to decry the violations. This was demonstrated by the response to the death of faculty of engineering student Mohamed Reda, with criticism for both the Ministry of Interior and Beblawy’s cabinet coming from a wide spectrum of people who initially supported Morsi’s ouster, among them Cairo University President Gaber Nassar.

Despite the persistent widespread support for the crackdown on pro-Morsi protesters, student protests remain one of the few areas where disapproval of the military-installed regime is widening. It remains to be seen just how wide that gap will become, amid the beginnings of what appears to be a crackdown on human rights organizations, and the continued loss of on-campus freedoms acquired after the 2011 uprising.

Rana Muhammad Taha is a journalist working for the Daily News Egypt.

Image: Photo: 2012 student protest (Jonathan Rashad)