Since the fall semester began, a highly radicalized Islamist student movement at the University of Al-Azhar has been involved in a violent standoff with heavy-handed security forces, turning the oldest Islamic university in the world into a bloody battlefield.
Al-Azhar has been a public university since it was nationalized in the 1960s. It has dozens of provincial campuses and nearly half a million students. It teaches secular subjects, such as medicine and business, but its core identity remains tied to its long legacy as an Islamic center of learning. It is where most of the country’s preachers and religious scholars are trained.
What further complicates the situation at Al-Azhar University is the Muslim Brotherhood’s complete domination of the student movement at the grassroots level. The Brotherhood student movement won over 70 percent of the university’s elected student union, and has heavy influence in many of the student unions at each university college. For example, they control almost 100 percent of the student unions of the theological colleges, where sharia and Islamic jurisprudence are taught.
The Brotherhood’s dominance at the grassroots level reflects a student body, faculty and staff that are largely sympathetic to Islamist discourse. But, the university’s leadership — which is appointed by the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb, who was himself appointed by former President Hosni Mubarak — is inclined to align itself with the state. Tayyeb stood alongside General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi when he announced the military’s decision to oust former president Mohamed Morsi.
The university’s senior administrators — who are government employees, and see themselves as the guardians of a moderate, official Islam — were quick to dismiss student agitation as “criminal” and “terrorist,” and to call in the police to end protests.
According to a census by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), 510 students have been arrested since the ouster of Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi, 211 of whom are from Al-Azhar University alone.
Out of five students who died during bloody confrontations this Fall, four of them were killed when police forces intervened on the troubled university campus to end Brotherhood-led protests.
While the Islamist student movement faces a heavy-handed crackdown by security forces, students with no connection to the Muslim Brotherhood complain that, although they are not involved in the conflict, they nonetheless face the threat of random arrests and killings on campus.
An example of this is the case of the so-called ‘café detainees,’ an incident in early December, in which 10 Al-Azhar students were arrested while chatting in a café close to the university’s dorms.
The students, who are the leaders of a coalition called “The Students Voice,” are the cornerstone of a non-Islamist student movement inside the embattled campus. They are members of the April 6 Youth Movement, the liberal Constitution Party and the Strong Egypt Party.
The students were accused of holding a meeting to discuss political matters without prior permission from security forces, in violation of the recently passed Protest Law, which criminalizes protests and public gatherings without notification.
Sarah Hamza, a student at Al-Azhar University and a member of April 6 Youth Movement, said that her friends were arrested after being reported by security informants in the café.
“They have been detained since then because they discussed political issues in the café,” she explained, adding that the evidence against them includes photos of Latin-American revolutionary figure Che Guevara, a flash drive containing the photo of Jika, an iconic revolutionary figure who was killed by police forces during Morsi’s rule, and a sticker stating, “there is still hope.”
“The prosecution viewed this evidence as a threat to the state and an expression of extreme hate towards security forces,” she added.
Non-Islamist students have blamed the Brotherhood for their insistence on escalating violence on campus, giving security forces a pretext for violent intervention.
Mohamed Hamed, another non-Islamist student, said that apolitical students are the ones paying the price.
The recent exam period witnessed the most violent confrontation to date, with Brotherhood students attempting to forcibly prevent others from taking their final exams.
“Most Al-Azhar students come from other governorates, and do not have the luxury of failing their exams in order to protest police brutality,” explained. Hamed. “Even if they belong to the Brotherhood, many of them can’t bear the financial burden of failing the whole year. The Brotherhood’s attempts to obstruct exams is completely selfish.”
Hamed, who himself hails from the northern governorate of Kafr el-Shiekh, recounted how Brotherhood students attempted to prevent other students from taking their exams.
“They tore examination papers, and poured dirty oil on the desks so that students couldn’t sit down; give me a better reason for the police to intervene than that,” he said.
The burning of the Faculty of Commerce building on December 28, 2013, was another shocking incident.
Tamer Hassan Ali, who teaches at Al-Azhar, described on his Facebook page how a group of masked assailants stormed the building early in the morning, completely destroying it and setting it ablaze.
Ali recounted that he and other faculty members “were locked in for while before we managed to open the doors to escape the fire, when a group of disgruntled students surrounded us and attacked us, accusing us of killing their friends.”
“Are the students paying us back for the good treatment we have given them over the last 12 years? I have always dealt with all students, regardless of their political affiliation,” he added.
Student Sarah Hamza believes that all involved parties are responsible for the deteriorating conditions at Al-Azhar, slamming the university’s administration for its determination to show control of the campus by any means.
“The administration has been very keen on calling the police to intervene whenever protests have taken place on campus. Moreover, there is no strong security system to prevent an escalation of violence,” she said.
After granting university presidents the right to call on the police to control protests on campuses, the government is now considering new legislation regulating university affairs, which would give university presidents the authority to expel students involved in “terrorist and disruptive acts.”
Hamza explained that several non-Islamist students suggested an initiative by which studies are halted for a week while the administration quickly issues student identification cards and appoints civilian security guards to check them.
“Students have no identification cards, and it is easy for anyone to enter the campus without such identity checks… The university is reluctant to provide a stable security system and prefers the easier option, which is resorting to the police,” she asserted.
For Hamed, Brotherhood students are aiming to demolish the roof over their own heads, and everyone else’s heads as well.
“We are caught between two sides insisting on escalation, and we are paying the price — if not with our lives, then with our futures,” he said.