The Battle Behind Campus Walls

Egyptian universities have become too dangerous for the state to handle. Or at least it would seem that way. Students this week at Cairo University, the country’s largest national university, sat for final examinations on campuses more closely resembling high security prisons. A show of force—army and police personnel in large numbers—crowded the street leading up to the campuses main gates. Officers carefully inspected bags at the entrance. Police dogs brought in by a private security company combed the halls. 

Though classes have been in session a mere two months—the semester was delayed for more than a month due to security concerns—students are being sent home early for the summer. Campuses this past year hosted the most volatile pockets of regime opposition and Egyptian authorities, wanting to minimize unrest during this month’s presidential elections, decided to shut down the university entirely.

The state has a long history of university intervention and the tactic is not entirely surprising. The move does, however, raise a number of key questions about its relationship vis-à-vis its universities moving forward. Campuses cannot be closed indefinitely and how the state deals with its restive students goes far beyond the issue of “anti-coup” protests. At stake are questions of university independence, the limits of dissent, and contestation over key public spaces, increasingly being reclaimed by the state.

A Lost Year

The past academic year was among the most volatile in the country’s history. The Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) estimates that police forces killed 14 students during clashes since the beginning of the academic year. Hundreds of others across the country have been suspended, arrested, and many ultimately sentenced to prison for taking part in demonstrations and clashes.

While student protests have been destructive—breaking into offices, burning vehicles, tearing down walls—the violent behavior only partially explains the government’s response. The state considers its universities critical pillars for maintaining social control. Only during the 2011 revolution did the state cede many of these crucial spaces for the first time. The past year has thus been a story about the state contesting, and generally winning back, lost ground.

The sheer breadth of state interference in university affairs is astounding. From the highest levels of leadership down to the micromanagement of student affairs, the state has dictated faculty appointments, manipulated student elections, planted security informants, and prohibited dissidents from entering campuses. Though local media has depicted campus violence as a narrow contest involving Brotherhood supporters calling for the return of Mohamed Morsi, this subsegment of the on-campus conflict represents only part of a much larger struggle for control of public space.

Beyond simply quashing dissent, the goal of state intervention, American University in Cairo professor Samia Mehrez explains, “has been to produce obedient citizens in its image who will propagate its own values.” Before the 2011 revolution, this project was largely successful.

New Schools of Thought

The 2011 revolution shattered university-state dynamics and proved the latent danger of campus activism. Despite the focus on Tahrir, January 2011 was a national uprising, and universities—from Fayoum to Mansoura, Zagazig to Alexandria—were focal points for the country’s peripheries, their campuses key organizing spaces, and their students key organizers.

There are more than seven million students enrolled in Egyptian universities. In 2011, when campus spaces spun away from the state’s reach for the first time, these universities—many hosting hundreds of thousands of students—became minor city-states capable of launching rapid opposition protests. This is precisely what happened throughout the military council period of 2011-2012 and into Mohamed Morsi’s presidency.

More significantly, the university’s relationship vis-à-vis the state underwent rapid transformation. Elections for university posts were held for the first time, students were granted greater rights and promised less state interference, and security forces—for a time—were strictly forbidden from campus.

The March 9 Movement, a nationwide group of professors that had been fighting for university independence from the state since 2004, finally began to see their goals coming into view.

“One of the things we tried to do at the university after the revolution was physically reclaim public space,” says Cairo University Professor and March 9 member Randa Abubakr. For a brief moment, they were extraordinarily successful, but the state never lost sight of the key importance of maintaining its presence.

“From the very beginning, when the military council was in charge after the revolution, they were adamantly against the elections of university leadership. It sounded at the time like a very trivial thing in the middle of everything the country was going through. It was actually amazing how stubborn they were about this,” Abubakr says.

A Campus Divided

The state’s post-June 30 campaign to conflate Muslim Brotherhood support with terrorism—which by all accounts has been enormously successful—reversed many gains achieved after January 25.

Security forces, once banned by a 2010 court ruling, have returned. University elections, once considered a key post-revolution triumph for the university’s autonomy, may be replaced by a mixed system of elections and appointments in the coming year. Groups like the March 9 Movement remain bitterly divided over key policies they once rallied behind.

But the state’s campaign to control affairs within the university should also be understood as part of a larger strategy to control public spaces writ-large.

As Cairo University President Dr. Gaber Nasser recently noted to Al-Masry Al-Youm, “the problem for Cairo University and Al-Azhar is their proximity to the sit-in centers of al-Nahda and Rabaa al-Adawiya”

This is not an insignificant observation. Protesting Cairo University students often head directly for al-Nahda square, the space that lies just beyond the massive state university’s campus. When students reach the university gates, however, they are often pushed back by tear gas and physically locked inside the campus. University walls, once designed to keep dissident elements out, are thus inverted, and used to ensure that controlled public spaces are not subjected to the volatile influence of Egyptian youth.

By controlling university spaces, state authorities effectively prevent the potentially catastrophic sit-ins of last summer from happening again.

The New Headmaster

The past semester underscored just how untenable the current situation is. Classes ended early and violent demonstrations severely disrupted the actual learning process. The incidents of the past academic year have, if nothing else, proven that students remain the most disruptive force in a country otherwise drained of its revolutionary fervor.

But universities cannot be closed forever. If and when Abdel Fatah al-Sisi assumes the presidency next month, he will have to make crucial decisions on how the state will deal with its rebellious universities. Students and faculty will, once again, be forced to protect what is left of their autonomy.

Madiha Doss, a Cairo University professor and member of the March 9 Movement, notes that “the challenge is to continue—if people aren’t interested and focused, we are going to return to the old regime, in every meaning of the word.”

“If the university reverts to bowing down to whatever the government dictates, then we’ll go back to the way we were,” said Doss.

Eric Knecht was a research assistant at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Previously he was a Fulbright grantee in Egypt, and is currently enrolled in the American University in Cairo’s Center for Arabic Study Abroad.

Image: Riot police and a plainclothes policeman detains a student during a protest against the military and the interior ministry, at Al-Azhar University in Cairo's Nasr City district, April 16, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)