As waves of student protests rise to a new level of violence, dozens of students have been arrested in recent weeks — most of them mostly belonging to the recently banned Muslim Brotherhood. Clashes have repeatedly broken out between Brotherhood students on one side, and pro-military students and security forces on the other.
But a third group of students occupies an uneasy space between these two camps. These students primarily belong to secular-oriented movements, and find themselves stuck between those who call for the reinstatement of the deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, and those who support the leadership of the Armed Forces, whose escalating crackdown on the Brotherhood may turn Egypt’s campuses into one big prison cell.
With the start of the new academic year almost a month ago, the Muslim Brotherhood is once again regrouping within Egyptian universities — a longstanding stronghold of support for the group — to apply pressure on the ruling military junta in the aftermath of the Armed Forces’ order that removed Morsi from office, and opened the floodgates for the mass killings and arrests of Brotherhood members.
But the escalating levels of violence may prove to be a serious blow to the freedoms that the student community has managed to gain over the past three years, the most important of which was putting an end to the presence of police forces inside universities, and opening a space for political activities.
In 2010, the Supreme Administrative Court issued a court ruling that halted the stationing of police forces inside university campuses. Police forces had supposedly been tasked with securing the campuses, but in reality were intervening in the students’ political activity. However, this ruling was not executed until after the 2011 revolution.
Now, with violence between students intensifying, the potential comeback of a tight security grip on campus freedoms is an increasingly likely threat.
In a telephone interview with the Al-Nahar television channel, Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim said that “some action needs to be taken” to face this level of violence.
“I’m not for bringing back the police forces inside the universities, but we need to do something. If I cannot secure the campuses, let us shut them down, then,” he angrily stated.
Ibrahim’s remarks came in response to clashes that broke out in Zagazig University, when Brotherhood students fought with students who supported the military. Both sides threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at each other, and the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper reported that there was also an exchange of gunfire.
Twelve students were reportedly injured in the incident.
Although on-campus security forces were replaced by civilian security forces, the interim Cabinet had planned to pass a decree granting them judicial arrest powers. Widespread opposition from the student community to the planned decision pressured the government to withdraw the bill and dismiss it as a mere “rumor.”
Some critics believe that the deep political rift that has developed between the Brotherhood youth and students belonging to rival political camps is a direct result of a situation where politics has intervened so deeply into student life, that it has been ruined.
But a sit-in held by Faculty of Economics and Political Science students at Cairo University showed there’s still at least one ray of hope in this dark tunnel, and that the dream of a united student movement could produce real change.
The students protested for almost 10 full days against a university-wide decision to withhold housing from students living in campus dormitories until the middle of the current semester. The demonstrators managed to pressure the university administration to reverse that decision and provide housing immediately.
“The major reason why the sit-in succeeded is that it was not politicized. The direct interests of the student community were threatened when they were denied access to the dorms; political affiliations will not benefit us when we cannot find a place to stay,” Youssef Manie, a member of the faculty’s student union, tells Mada Masr.
Manie says the sit-in was extremely diverse, as Brotherhood-member students, pro-army students and those in between found themselves forced to work together for days as they demanded their basic and immediate needs.
Although the university administration said that the students weren’t granted immediate housing due to delayed maintenance in the dorms, Manie explains that most of the protesting students knew that there were political motives in the decision, as well.
“We all know that students who live in the dorms are those who come from other governorates, and we also know that they mostly belong to the Islamist movement,” Manie says, adding that the university wanted to delay their housing in order to avoid protests on campus.
“By the time they will be relocated, midterms will start, and they will be busy studying. It will also give the administration the chance to make a security check to make sure that the students do not belong to certain political backgrounds,” he adds.
Prior to January 25 revolution, many students were denied access to the dorms if they were found to be politically active, especially if they belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Most of the protesting pro-military students who participated in the sit-in know for sure that most of those who stay in the dorms are Brotherhood, and they would love to see them in a tough position. But at the same time, they do not want to face the same problem, so they had to protest even if it means a better condition for their rivals,” Manie says.
Mohamed Nagui, a researcher at the academic freedoms program at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), tells Mada Masr that political rifts disappear once the direct interests of the students are threatened.
The student community will find itself pressured to reunite regardless of all political divisions in order to battle deteriorating educational services, rising university tuitions and internal bylaws that organize the rights and duties of the students inside the classroom — particularly grading systems, Nagui explains.
“According to the universities’ administrative bylaws, students are not allowed to know on which basis they are graded. They do not know what their rights and duties are, and they have no information on how they are referred to disciplinary committees,” he states.
On the other hand, political rifts mainly arise when it comes to the area where student activism is organized, and hence when student-to-student relationships are organized.
“Here we are talking about the student bylaws, and we have seen how the Brotherhood students controlled the drafting process in the past, and how that process was now overturned by the secular movement once the Brotherhood was deposed from power,” Nagui explains.
Manie, who early this year ran against the Brotherhood in the student union elections on a list of movements representing a group of liberal political parties, believes that he is part of a growing group of students that are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“We see the battle escalating between the Brotherhood students on the side, and the pro-military students, who mostly belong to the police-affiliated student movement that controlled the campus before the revolution, on the other. We cannot join the Brotherhood students who are calling for the reinstatement of Morsi, and we cannot accept the atrocities practiced against them,” he asserts.
Nagui believes that the groups in this in-between position are too weak to confront the two battling sides.
“The protests and the counter-protests are further weakening the student movement, and are threatening campus freedoms. The [third] movement does not exert enough effort to avert the disaster that is likely to happen,” he adds.
But Nagui does not believe that the solution should be to leave politics aside.
“We cannot forget about politics when it comes to campus activity. The history of the student movement is directly connected to the struggle of the outside political arena since a long time ago,” he asserts.
The ultimate solution, Manie argues, is for the students to realize when to unite for their overall good, and when politics can divide them, without ultimately impacting on their freedoms.