The student union of Cairo University’s engineering department held a press conference on Wednesday demanding the release of 13 fellow students who were recently detained in the mass student arrests that accompanied the start of the new school year.
Violent clashes have been a daily occurrence in Egyptian universities since September 2013. In the 2013-14 academic year, at least 13 students were killed in on-campus clashes.
This year, before the new semester started on October 11, security forces rounded up dozens of students from their homes on the eve of the first day of classes, accusing them of planning protests for the next day.
At the press conference, the speakers said that the state is now randomly targeting students who are known to be religiously conservative or to be involved in charity work, and accusing them of belonging to the recently outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
The speakers also criticized the new security system in universities that was implemented this year by the private company Falcon. They exhorted the government to protect campus freedoms and focus on improving the quality of education if they truly want to quiet the ongoing upheaval in the country’s universities.
Hossam Safwat, president of the engineering department’s student union, said that 13 students from the faculty are currently imprisoned, five of whom were arrested from their homes the night before classes began.
The father of Omar Khattab, one of those five students, spoke of his ordeal during the presser. Last year, Khattab was detained for nine months after being arrested during the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in dispersal in August 2013. Following his release, Khattab’s father says that his son abandoned all his political and extra-curricular activities in order to focus on catching up on his academics.
The night before the first day of classes, police forces stormed Khattab’s house and took him from his bed, his father said. After two days of searching, his parents finally found him in the Agouza police station, where he still remains as he awaits charges.
Safwat said that the new security system is worsening the nationwide university crisis. Since the start of the academic year, the security measures introduced by Falcon have caused long queues at the gates of universities. Violent clashes have also occurred on several campuses, with the worst violence at Alexandria University. Police forces fired tear gas and pellets inside lecture halls, arrested dozens of students and injured many others, one of whom is currently hospitalized and in critical condition.
“There is a difference between security for the students, which we all support, and security from the students and the culture of fear from students and protests. We are all for a new administrative security system, but with a respectable and practical strategy,” Safwat said.
Laila Soueif, a Cairo University science professor, said that the attempts to create a system that mandates searching more than 250,000 people a day before they can enter the campus is counter-productive and arbitrary.
“The university and state authorities are insisting to put students and faculty members in a confrontation with the state,” Soueif argued.
The crackdown on university freedoms this year is even more aggressive that last year, Soueif claimed, calling such actions provocative and irresponsible behavior that will lead to an escalation of violence in Egyptian universities.
Soueif suggested that expanding student freedoms would ease the tension and isolate those who insist on violence.
The core issue goes back to the quality of education, Soueif added, claiming that universities currently offer no services to foster student enthusiasm for their universities and their facilities.
The speakers also noted that several of the students who were detained this week will be prevented from taking exams, thus costing them an entire academic year.
Mostafa Zidan, an assistant professor in engineering at Cairo University, criticized the administration’s lack of support for its detained students and faculty members.
Zidan himself was arrested from his house in March and released six months later. He believes he was targeted simply for having a beard. Zidan said that the university fired him for accruing too many absences while he was incarcerated, and only reinstated him after a lengthy ordeal.
Zidan expects that the arrest of the recently graduated engineering student Abdel Rahman Kamal, who was appointed as a teaching assistant this year, was prompted by the university’s refusal to have people with a religious outlook on staff. The administration is resorting to preemptive arrests to keep anyone with potentially religious leanings off campus, he speculated.
Kamal was among those arrested from his home the night before classes started, and his whereabouts still remain unknown. He has several certificates of high achievement from the university and other organizations where he trained.
His colleagues believe he was targeted due to his support for Syrian refugees and other charitable work.