The flicker of hope for the student movement that was kindled at the start of 2013 was quickly overshadowed by deadly violence, leaving in its wake a trail of blood and a murky future for campus freedoms going into 2014.
University campuses have always reflected the nation’s broader political reality, which this year was dominated by a fierce battle between Islamists seeking control over student unions and bylaws, secular students trying to challenge the Brotherhood’s domination, and other groups working on turning the clock back to a pre-January 25 era.
Early in 2013, the Brotherhood-dominated student unions drafted contentious bylaws that had little consensus from the student body. Accusations of hijacking campus freedoms were levied against the movement. Later on, when Brotherhood students refused to hold a referendum on the bylaws, they were passed by an administrative decree during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency.
The conflict was reminiscent of the Islamist-secular divide over drafting the constitution; but while the secular forces failed to pressure the Brotherhood into drafting a more inclusive charter, revolutionary student movements succeeded where those political forces failed.
In a move that carried a promise for the positive transformation of student politics, students who did not support the military or the Muslim Brotherhood allied against the Brotherhood domination of student unions. In March 2013, students belonging to various revolutionary and secular political movements formed strong electoral alliances and managed to achieve a sweeping victory in the student union elections.
The victory of the non-Islamist student movement was an indication of the erosion of the Brotherhood’s influence in university campuses, which have always been its major power base.
Once the non-Islamist students secured almost half the student union seats across the nation’s universities to reach the Egyptian Student Union (ESU) — an umbrella encompassing student union leaders from all of Egypt’s universities — the ESU was tasked with drafting new bylaws.
But hopes were quickly dashed when the conflict intensified between the Muslim Brotherhood and the country’s military junta following a military takeover ousting Morsi in response to mass protests against his presidency.
The conflict infiltrated university campuses, turning them into bloody battlefields.
The Muslim Brotherhood resorted to its major power bases on campuses to combat the intensifying state crackdown by mobilizing student protests. Al-Azhar University witnessed the most violent confrontations between Brotherhood students and police forces.
The escalating levels of violence translated into a major blow to campus freedoms, making room for increased police brutality and giving the state leverage to intervene in university affairs.
Protests by Students Against the Coup (SAC), an umbrella group headed by Muslim Brotherhood students, were usually confronted by students supporting the interim government and security forces, leaving students who supported neither the military nor the Brotherhood stuck between a rock and a hard place.
These students, although increasingly displeased with police interference and brutality, have remained resistant to forming any alliances with other groups.
The moments of despair continue to unfold. The year ended with four students killed at the hands of the police, three of whom at Al-Azhar University and one at Cairo University.
A census conducted by the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) reported that at least 510 students have been arrested since Morsi was removed from office, 211 of whom were enrolled in Al-Azhar University, 66 in Mansoura University, 39 in Cairo University and 37 in Aim Shams University.
So far, 10 percent of these students have received prison sentences, including 12 Al-Azhar students who were each sentenced to 17 years in prison for their role in the recent protests, according to AFTE’s census.
The report added that 37 percent of the students are still in detention pending investigation and 4 percent are still awaiting court rulings, while 49 percent have no clear legal situation, due to the inability to get proper information on their legal status.
This week, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters banned student protests on university campuses unless authorized by university presidents.
The court was ruling on a lawsuit filed by Tawfik Okasha, owner of the private Faraeen Channel. Okasha demanded that all protests on campuses be banned unless given prior approval by a university president.
Photos were published on social media showing police forces stationed inside classrooms in Al-Azhar University in order to secure the exams and to halt alleged attempts by Brotherhood students to obstruct the process.
The year that opened with a moment of possibility closed with a fragmented student movement, restricted campus freedoms and crushed hopes in the midst of a brutal confrontation between a heavy-handed government and a deposed Islamist organization.
And faculty members envisage a less than promising future for campus politics as both the military-backed government and the Muslim Brotherhood seem intent on escalating the conflict.
Hany al-Hossieny, a Cairo University math professor and member of the March 9 Movement for the Independence of Universities, says that bringing the mounting struggle under control is a significant challenge.
“The Muslim Brotherhood students seem to insist on escalating the situation,” he says, suspicious that they are intentionally doing so to bring security forces back onto campus.
“On the other hand, security will never find a better opportunity to intervene again in campus freedoms,” he adds.
But Cairo University political science professor Ahmed Abd Rabou believes that the only way the situation can be salvaged is through the students themselves.
“The real challenge facing the students is to confront police brutality peacefully without politicizing their cause,” he says.
The solution is in unifying the student movement against police practices and in support of campus freedoms, through which students could reconcile their ideological conflicts, Abd Rabou asserts.
“They should not allow any hijacking of their movement by any political forces,” he insists.
But the question of how this could be achieved remains unanswered.