A controversial request by Al-Azhar University’s president for riot police to enter the campus to contain protests on Wednesday raised questions once again around the institution’s independence and the role it plays on the political scene.
Osama al-Abd requested that riot police intervene to “protect lives and public property,” the interior ministry said in a statement.
Security forces arrested 26 people, of whom 14 are not students at the university.
Earlier that day, Egypt’s General Prosecution had granted riot police permission to enter the grounds, the site of protests and clashes earlier this week.
Security forces were asked to enter the campus on Wednesday and take the necessary measures to confront the “escalating developments.” Students reportedly affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood “attacked the administrative building, and besieged the president’s office, destroying documents and firing rubber bullets and fireworks,” the statement said.
The academic year began on October 20 at Al-Azhar, later than in other institutions.
Amr Ezzat, researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the delay was expected given that reports had indicated that beginning the academic year of Al-Azhar would come at a high cost regarding security measures.
Students are protesting what they call the “bloody coup,” how they describe the army’s removal of former President Mohamed Morsi from office after mass demonstrations against him in July.
Student union representative Abdallah Abdel Moteleb told Mada Masr that Wednesday’s protest ended at noon, adding, “We do not know who besieged the president’s office nor do we know who clashed with interior ministry [security] last Sunday.”
This is also part of an ongoing protest movement fronted by pro-Brotherhood students, which has resulted in clashes in campuses at several universities around the country.
“If the university president’s excuse is to protect students’ lives and the academic system, then why did he not criticize the arrest of Azhar students by security forces?” asked Abdel Moteleb.
He added that what is happening is part of a conspiracy to create an avenue for security forces to enter the university campus to oppress students and restrict their freedoms.
Hany el-Housseiny, member of the March 9 Movement advocating for the independence of universities, told Mada Masr that the idea of security forces entering campuses does not necessarily negate the independence of universities as long as it comes by request from the university president in case of emergencies.
“Security forces have the right to enter any citizen’s home without a warrant to save them in case of a disaster, and these are private places, so there is no problem in entering universities as long as the president requests so,” he said.
“The issue is that university presidents must be held accountable and the decision to make such a request must be evaluated,” he added. “But in the case of Al-Azhar, this does not happen because it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the universities law.”
Over the years, professors spearheaded by the March 9 Movement fought for the independence of universities, freeing campuses from the grip of security bodies as well as guardianship of the state security apparatus. Progress was made on many fronts, such as canceling campus security affiliated with the Interior Ministry as well as electing university presidents.
However, Al-Azhar University was not part of this process since it does not fall under the same legal framework as other academic institutions. Instead, it falls under the authority of the “independent” Azhar institution, according to the suspended constitution; and its laws are put in place by the Council of Senior Scholars.
El-Housseiny says there is no hope of holding the university’s president accountable for any decision, and the only way to change this reality is for students and professors to create a movement that would demand change and force the president to resign if this doesn’t happen.
“In the [March 9] Movement, we do not consider Al-Azhar a university we should fight for because it is built on discrimination between citizens since it does not accept non-Muslims. It also segregates between men and women, and is wholly different from what should be called a university,” he added.
At the same time, Ezzat says the ongoing battle in Al-Azhar reflects what he calls “Islamic authoritarianism which generally governs religious matters in Egypt.”
He explains “Islamic authoritarianism” as a belief which favors Muslims over others in Egypt. “Al-Azhar’s curriculum is fertile ground for creating minds that believe in Islamic authoritarianism. And with the lack of charisma and organization among Azhar leaders, the youth are led astray into joining Islamist groups that talk Islamic states based on old understandings that they teach there.”
Moreover, the state perceives that part of its legitimacy is in utilizing this same “Islamic authoritarianism,” and this is evidenced by its approach to engaging in all kinds of battles related to religion.
In this context, the battles playing out at Al-Azhar are reflective of its role, which goes beyond its stated purpose as an educational institution, and plays a part in political power grabs.
Ezzat says that the success of the main Islamic groups in propagating their authoritarian discourse to large segments of the population, the state resorts to defending its share in this kind of power by always ensuring Al-Azhar sheikh’s loyalty.
Ezzat attributed resorting to security forces to enter Al-Azhar campus to contain the protests to negligible support for the current Azhar leaders by students and members of the Azhar community, namely after the June 30 protests.
“Under Morsi’s reign, there was a fear of the ‘Brotherhoodization’ of a certain group of Azhar students, so they had to back the Azhar Sheikh out of their belief that he will lead the Islamic Project with its different affiliations,” he said, “but now after Morsi’s ouster this group joined the Brotherhood protests since they believed he was also representing the Islamic project and that the Azhar Sheikh’s support of the coup meant him joining the side that’s fighting Islam.”
On Monday, clashes escalated outside the campus gates between students and security forces who used tear gas to disperse the protests. The students were protesting against the arrest of 40 of their classmates last Sunday, who were detained on charges of assaulting security forces, blocking the road, illegal assembly and vandalism in the course of demonstrations denouncing Morsi’s removal from office.