HR lawyer explains legalities of university security measures

On the first day of the academic year, the authorities started enacting a set of measures to control student activity on university campuses. The new regulations are open to many questions: about the role of private security companies, the proposed amendments concerning student suspensions and the expulsion of faculty members, and the scope of the authority of private and administrative security firms.

In this article, human rights lawyer Ahmed Ezzat answers Mada Masr’s questions about these measures.

The Egyptian Cabinet authorized the Minister of Higher Education to contract private companies for university security. How legal is this authorization? And how legal is hiring a private company for university security?

According to article 317 in the law regulating universities, approved by presidential decree 809 (1975), on campus security is the responsibility of the head of the university. This article formed the base of the Supreme Administrative Court’s verdict banning Ministry of Interior affiliated security on campus, and prohibiting the Cabinet or any other authority from delegating any party to contract a private security company.

As stated in the law, security personnel should answer to and fall under the administration of the head of the university. In addition, security units should be formed on campus, which means security personnel receive the same treatment as other administrative employees.

This does not apply to private security personnel, who answer to their company, which, as a contractor, answers to the Minister of High Education, and not the head of the university. This is to ensure that the university is independent from all other authorities that might issue orders or take actions to undermine academic freedoms.

The executive manager of private security company, Falcon, said they would search students and faculty members’ vehicles, which was confirmed by the head of Ain Shams University on many occasions. Do they have the right to do that? 

As for searching the vehicles of students and faculty, the Criminal Procedure Code states that only those with judicial enforcement authority are allowed to search individuals, and only if a legitimate arrest can be made; such as if someone is caught in the act of a felony or misdemeanor and the punishment exceeds three months in prison, or if there is an arrest warrant from the public prosecution.

Private security personnel do not have the judicial enforcement authority of prosecutors, officers, officials or public employees, who are authorized by the minister of justice. If a private security officer searched the car of a student or professor, it would be considered a violation of privacy.

The contracted company and university officials mentioned that students would use magnetic cards for entrance to campus, and that anyone who “sneaks in” would be arrested and trialed. Is there a legal basis for this?

There are no laws prohibiting anyone from entering university campuses, except if a crime is committed. In which case, the penal and criminal codes are applied, which is known as ex-post-facto legal action. As per the Egyptian constitution, crimes and punishments are defined only by the law. Many universities around the world not only allow non-students on campus, but they also encourage them to participate in university events. This is why you rarely see security guards at international university gates asking for IDs.

Is it legal to install surveillance cameras to monitor student movements? Does the university administration have the right to do this?

Installing surveillance cameras to monitor students is a violation of privacy in the public sphere. Such regulations are not limited to private spaces, like homes or closed rooms. The law and constitution also protect the rights of individuals to privacy in public spaces. The penal code prohibits taking pictures, eavesdropping, or recording conversations without permission, even if this takes place in a public area.

Exceptions are limited to having a warrant to track someone based on necessity, and this warrant should have a specific time span. Installing a camera for constant surveillance is against the law and the constitution.

What is the role of the minister of higher education in the Supreme Council of Universities?

According to Article 18 of the laws regulating universities (1972), the minister of higher education is the head of the Supreme Council of Universities. His role is limited to defining policies regarding university education and academic research, and aligning this with the country’s needs, pursuant to national, social, economic and scientific targets.

What about the amendments made to the disciplinary code in connection with students and faculty members, like suspending students without investigation and expelling faculty members without disciplinary measures?

In case of a violation of the law by a faculty member, the disciplinary system requires an investigation conducted by a member of the law department. The investigator should be either of the same rank or of a higher rank than the staff member under investigation. A report of the investigation should be presented to the head of university, and the minister of higher education has the right to be informed of this report. After examining the report, the head of the university may close the investigation, or refer the faculty member to a disciplinary committee, if deemed appropriate.

In the case of disciplinary procedures, the head of the university informs the faculty member of the accusations against them, and sends a copy of the investigation report by registered mail, with an acknowledgement of receipt, at least 20 days prior to the scheduled session.

The faculty member facing disciplinary measures has the right to examine the investigations made, in a time period specified by the head of the university.

The disciplinary committee consists of one of the deputies, a law professor and a judge from the State Council. The head of the university’s authority regarding direct punishment of faculty members is limited to admonishment or a warning. Thus, the proposed legislative amendment, allowing the heads of universities to expel faculty members without disciplinary action, is unconstitutional.

As disciplinary procedures are derived from criminal procedures, anyone facing disciplinary action should enjoy the rights granted to criminal trials, in both procedural and non procedural aspects.

As for disciplinary measures regarding students, the last amendment added a provision to Article 184 A, which changed the role of the disciplinary committee. Instead of investigating the incident, it may now only challenge the suspension of a student issued by the head of the university. This deprives the student from several stages of appeal: an administrative investigation, a preliminary disciplinary committee, a disciplinary appeal committee, referral to the administrative court in case the appeal committee endorses the verdict, and finally, referral to the Supreme Administrative Court in case the claim is denied by the administrative court.

According to this amendment, the suspension order made by the university head can be appealed at a disciplinary committee at one stage only. If the latter endorses the verdict, the student can only refer to the Supreme Administrative Court, without the right to refer to the administrative court first.

Both the legislative amendment regarding student suspension and the proposed amendment concerning faculty members’ expulsions are unconstitutional, as they lack the constituents of a fair trial, and breach the principle of legitimate punishment, by which all penal laws should be clear and unambiguous. Article 184 A on student disciplinary procedures fails to provide the latter, listing actions considered as violations punished by suspension without any legal definition.

Is the presidential decree to abolish the election of university heads constitutional? How would this affect the independence of universities from the regime?

Abolishing the election of university heads is a serious violation of the independence of the university, and the rights of the academic community to conduct affairs in a democratic manner. The decree reflects the president’s wish to bring back the pre-25 January era, when all university heads were appointed based on their loyalty to the executive authority, and not their academic background or qualifications.

These standards could have been put to a vote or applied to other sectors. But the current president, with temporary legislative authority, made a decision. Such matters should have been left for a parliament to determine. A presidential decree is clearly an arbitrary use of power.

Some controversial decisions were issued recently, like the head of Cairo University’s decision to cancel the camp for students of the Faculty of Political Science and Economy, or freezing student societies. Is this in line with the constitution?

To freeze student societies and cancel the camp for students of the Faculty of Political Science and Economy by claiming they had political tendencies, is not constitutional, as none of the current regulations ban political activity on campuses. However, banning student political activity was one of the main characteristics of the 1979 and 2007 regulations, issued under Mubarak.

Generally speaking, political activity is a fundamental human right that cannot be taken away. This does not only have to do with the constitution and the law, but also with basic rights and freedoms that should be granted to any community. Political activism is at the core of freedom of speech, whether practiced on or off campus.

Recent steps to freeze various political societies represent a crackdown on the public sphere, which the current administration has been trying to repress since it came to power.

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