Ahmed Khalaf was startled when he got a phone call from this reporter, because he expected news of arrest of fellow students on election day rather than an interview.
“On a day like this, we cross our fingers for the safety of our fellows. Some of them may be protesting and others may be campaigning. Arrest, detention and injury have been so close to us since the beginning of this year,” says Khalaf, who is also the president of the Student Union president of Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science.
University campuses have been the site of bloody confrontations between various student groups and police forces following the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, with much of the battle between the Brotherhood and the military taking place on university campuses.
Thirteen students have been killed, dozens injured and hundreds detained in the worst crackdown on university freedom in the last 70 years, as described by the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).
This turbulence has arguably resulted in visibly low student turnout in the presidential polls taking place Monday and Tuesday. A similar poor attendance of students, and youth in general, was apparent and lamented during the last election, the referendum on the 2014 constitution.
Khalaf compares this with the university activism that took place around the 2012 presidential elections, when there was “real political plurality.” Back then, he points out, a rainbow of candidates, from the right and the left, from the old regime and from the ranks of the revolution, took part in the contest.
“Students were actively campaigning for different candidates. We were involved in various discussions and coordination among different student groups. Now, we cannot even say that students are boycotting as a show of political dissent, but out of mere apathy,” he explains.
Mohamed Salem, member of the student committee of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, is concerned that that the general mood among youth and students in particular is not going to benefit the student movement.
Salem resists this mood by being an active supporter of Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, viewed as the closer figure to the revolution in the two-rival contest with military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
“Youth represent 60 percent of the total voting power, if they are all united behind Sabbahi, we can change the whole equation,” Salem explains, lamenting the control of the elderly over the voting process.
Meanwhile, Students Against the Coup (SAC), an umbrella student group headed by the student movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, praised what it called “the boycott of the show to elect the leader of the coup,” referring to Sisi. The group was quick to highlight the low turnout of students and youth at the polls.
“We thank the youth for answering the calls of the SAC movement to boycott. We can justify the youth’s apathy, because they are the ones mostly aware of the real bloody truth of the military,” SAC said in an official statement on Monday.
Salem slams the boycott campaign launched by the Islamist group, saying that it eventually benefits Sisi, who is expected to win by a landslide, with little competition from Sabbahi, who could be negatively affected by the boycott.
But for Khalaf, whose university alone witnessed seven deaths of students, the issue is bigger than politics. More personal grievances related to university life are overshadowing grand political questions.
For one, most of the students, he says, suffer personally from the loss of their friends, either those killed or detained.
Khalaf adds, “We feel disgusted by the whole process.”