Over eight university students have been killed and hundreds detained since the start of the academic year in September, following fierce clashes between police and students mostly belonging to the ousted Muslim Brotherhood group.
A ruling in February to bring back police forces to officially secure university premises nationwide has only fanned the flames.
The legality of the ruling, which contradicts another final court ruling in 2010 from the Supreme Administrative Court banning security forces’ presence on campus, is itself contested.
After an extended mid-year break – due to ongoing security concerns – the start of the new semester was as marred by violence as the end of the last one, with one high school student in front of Cairo University killed, as well as another pupil at a preparatory school killed outside the gates of Beni Suef University.
Dozens of students have been injured and detained and police forces have already stormed different university campuses since the return to classes. But observers say that there has been no official presence of police units inside universities like there was before the 2011 revolution.
The question therefore revolves around the legality of the latest ruling, but also on what form the return of police forces to universities could take compared to the pre-January 25 era.
A legal maze: two contradictory court rulings
In its ruling to bring police back to secure universities, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters describes the presence of police forces as “necessary” because of the “violence, chaos and obstruction of the educational process” on top of the “government’s inability to take swift action to temporarily solve the current situation.”
The university protests, the court also says in its ruling, are “due to the insistence of Brotherhood-affiliated students to portray June 30 as a military coup and not a correction to the direction of the January 25 revolution” meaning that “Egyptians have not picked the fruits of the June 30 revolution.”
But legal experts have slammed the court ruling, asserting that the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters is not the court entitled to issue such rulings. Among those is Cairo University’s Faculty of Law dean, Mahmoud Koubaish.
Koubaish is himself a harsh critic of the Brotherhood and Brotherhood-affiliated students, who allegedly attacked his office at the end of the last semester. In a phone interview with Al-Hayat television network, he said that the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters is not “a notebook [with readymade court rulings] for everyone for any kind of decisions.”
“Everyone knows my stances towards the Brotherhood, but this court ruling contradicts the law,” he said.
Fatma Serag, a lawyer with the academic freedoms program at the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), says that only the Administrative Court is entitled to issue a ruling on this matter.
The issue whether to bring back security on campus is an administrative decision, she explains, therefore the Administrative Court is the only court with jurisprudence in this matter.
“This already happened in 2010. We have a final ruling from the Supreme Administrative Court to ban security forces on campuses, so there is no point to have a contradictory court ruling from a court that is not entitled to issue this kind of ruling,” Serag says.
In 2008, the 9 March Movement for the Independence of Universities filed a lawsuit in front of the Administrative Court demanding an end to the presence of security forces on campus.
In its lawsuit, the 9 March Movement said that the presence of police forces threatened campus freedoms because they were used by the regime to silence all voices of dissent.
Additionally, university bylaws at the time enabled police forces indirectly to intervene in campus activities and the appointments of student leaders, as well as the licensing of certain groups of activities. Most faculty leadership appointments were also said to be conducted according to recommendations from State Security.
The Administrative Court banned the presence of police on campuses in 2008, but the Ministry of Interior appealed the ruling in 2010 in front of the Supreme Administrative Court, which supported the ruling to finally put an end to police forces inside university premises. The court ruling was only implemented following the January 25 revolution.
In the details of its unprecedented ruling, the Supreme Administrative Court referred to a number of international agreements and conventions – recommendations from the 1997 UNESCO general assembly meeting, the Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education in 1988, the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in1990 and the Oman Declaration for Academic Freedoms and the Independence of Higher Education Institutions in 2004.
These declarations, the Supreme Administrative Court ruling asserted, oblige states to ensure the independence of universities as an important way to realize academic freedoms.
“Thus, the presence of police forces on campuses is considered a [threat] to the independence of the university which is ensured by the Constitution, as well as a restriction on the freedoms of faculty members, researchers and students as they see another entity that does not belong to the university community [the police] permanently present on campus, watching out for their movement and controls the practices of their activities,” the ruling read.
Although the ruling pertained to Cairo University, Serag explains that it applied to all Egyptian universities because rulings issued by the Supreme Administrative Court have a general implementation.
“We will appeal the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters ruling, and we are sure that our appeal will be accepted,” she says.
Will police forces return as before?
The contentious ruling does not only open another window of conflict between those who call for stricter campus security and others who demand more campus freedoms, but also brings into focus the question of whether the police have the capability to maintain a presence inside university campuses.
Remarks by state officials show that police forces’ presence will not take the same shape as that prior to the January 25 revolution, but will rather be a temporary intervention if and when the situation gets out of control.
In a meeting with representatives of student unions, Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim said that he does not want police forces to be inside campuses in the first place.
Ibrahim said in the meeting that police forces will not be present inside campuses and should only intervene to secure students.
Minister of Higher Education Wael al-Degwy also said in press statements that police forces will only be present outside university campuses and will only intervene if the situation inside escalates to dangerous levels, leaving the day to day security to civilian security guards.
Similarly, Cairo University’s president, Gaber Gad Nassar, said that police forces would intervene upon the request of university administration in case riots escalated on campus.
Since the start of the semester, and with the new ruling in place, this inclination not to return police forces to the campus itself has been clear; although the contentious ruling aimed at re-establishing police units inside universities, police only intervened during violence with no official presence on campus.
In some cases, however, police forces temporarily stormed campuses.
Wissam Atta, a student representing the Thuwar Front at Cairo University, says that the court ruling will be implemented according to the needs of the Ministry of Interior itself.
“Police forces cannot be present permanently on campus. The ministry knows it will involve itself in a direct and daily confrontation with the student movement, which is not desirable for the ministry,” he explains.
For Atta, the presence of police forces will radicalize more students, as it will lead to the intervention of bigger circles of the students into the political conflict on campus.
Alexandria University student union member Moustafa Hussein agrees with Atta, adding that the “the confrontation between university students and police forces, especially the young officers, is in no one’s favor.”
“The power relationship between both is not going to work. Students now are more radicalized and will not accept police guardianship, and young police officers will neither accept nor understand this spirit,” he explains.
Hussein, who attended the meeting with Ibrahim, said that it was obvious that the minister recognized the dilemma.
As a result, Hussein says, student representatives agreed with Ibrahim that cameras will be used on campus to monitor any possible violence on campus.
Hussein says this is necessary to prevent further disruption and danger to the mass of university students.
“We all know that Brotherhood students use violence inside universities, which is always used as a pretext for police intervention. Only non-politicized and independent students pay the price. They are the ones who are killed and randomly arrested by police,” he explained.
“If everything is filmed, it will be easy to figure out who uses violence and it will be easy to set everyone accountable for his own deeds,” he argues.
Professor of political science at Cairo University, Tarek Fahmy, says that the police cannot return to the campuses as they were before.
“Police cannot come back with the same practices and the same powers, I believe they will look for another system to come back to suit the new conditions, but how this system will look depends on how the student movement, especially the Brotherhood, will escalate,” he explains.
But security researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Kareem Ennarah, thinks it is “too early to realize the shape of implementing such a ruling in the near future.”
Ennarah adds that appointing faculty leaderships through the intervention of security bodies could happen without the presence of police forces, but doubts intervention into the results of student union elections due to the “political liquidity” of the situation.
Ultimately, Ennarah says, political intervention in university matters may not need the physical presence of police forces on campus.