Students across Egypt are outraged after the High Council of Universities (HCU) canceled this year’s student union elections for “legal reasons.”
The elections can’t take place because the electoral period mandated by HCU bylaws has already passed, explained Higher Education Minister Sayed Abdel Khalek, who also heads the HCU.
Bylaws stipulate that student union elections must be held no later than six weeks after the academic year begins. However, “the bylaws themselves were issued two months after the academic year began, so there’s no time to hold the elections this year,” Higher Education Ministry spokesperson Adly Reda said in an interview with the privately owned satellite channel ONtv.
If the elections were held regardless of the bylaws, they would effectively be illegal and thus could easily be appealed in court, Reda claimed.
Student union elections haven’t been held since March 2013. They were also canceled in 2014 due to escalating on-campus protests and deadly confrontations between security forces and students, the majority of whom affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. At least 15 students were killed in last year’s violence, with hundreds more injured or suspended from university.
The leaders of various student movements have accused the ministry and the HCU of unilaterally issuing these bylaws without input from the student community. They also say the bylaws restrict student freedoms by banning student groups with any political or partisan affiliations.
The HCU’s decision proves that the state rejects democracy, claimed Ahmed Khalaf, a graduating senior and student union president for the Cairo University Faculty of Economics and Political Science.
The elections have always been the cornerstone of a strong student movement, he told Mada Masr, but now “we have two classes that are not represented in the union. Most elected union leaders are either about to graduate, or already have. By next year we won’t have any union representatives left. There will be a vacuum, and that’s exactly what the state wants.”
Abdel Rahman Mostafa, the April 6 Youth Movement spokesperson at Al-Azhar University, told Mada that he wasn’t surprised by the ruling.
“The state has done worse things than canceling the elections. The state has already killed students, so we shouldn’t be surprised,” he said.
Since former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013, Al-Azhar University has suffered the worst of Egypt’s endemic on-campus violence. Last year Al-Azhar had the highest rate of student deaths, arrests and suspensions. University administration has banned all student groups, fearing the Brotherhood’s influence at the world’s premier Islamic university.
Karim al-Samman is the spokesperson for the Freedom Egypt student movement, which is affiliated with the liberal political party of the same name. He told Mada that student activity has “stagnated” for the past two years.
“Canceling elections creates an opportune environment for Brotherhood students, who are used to underground political activity, but other student groups won’t function. Instead of going to the ballot boxes through a real democratic process, they’ll go to the streets — and I would guess that this is the last thing the regime wants,” Samman asserted.
He added that he was astonished by the government’s “persistence” in repeatedly provoking the nation’s students.
“The regime already has too many battlefronts. Why open another? Why widen this gap with the youth?” Samman asked.
Mokhtar Mounir, a lawyer with the academic freedoms unit at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), believes the HCU’s decision is directly related to the Supreme Constitutional Court’s recent ruling that postponed the parliamentary elections.
“Powers are now solely concentrated in the president’s office. It’s obvious that the current administration does not want to listen to other voices or give any powers to any other entity, and it recognizes that elections can help foster a strong student movement,” he explained.
Mounir said he intends to legally appeal the HCU’s decision. Most students, however, are at a loss as to how to adapt to the new circumstances.
Khalaf asked his faculty administration to hold internal elections despite the decision. “We need to have a form of student representation, even if it isn’t official,” he insisted.
He’s been recruiting new members in an attempt to include the classes that haven’t had official union representation for the last two years.
“But this can’t be sustainable. Student activity will die,” Khalaf predicted.
Abdel Rahman also attempted to form a student group representing his political movement at Al-Azhhar, but said he was rejected. He and hundreds of other student leaders are now continuing their work unofficially.
“Any official political work on campus will be met with a crackdown. Police trucks surround the campus,” he claimed. “Our activities are now limited to online campaigns. We are back to the days when social media was our only space to breathe.”