Student unions face major challenges ahead of new semester

Classes started again at universities nationwide this week, but public universities face a turbulent start as the first elected student unions in two years gear up for protracted legal and political battles.

New student leaders, elected last December, face a mountain of problems accumulated since the 2013 overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi and the subsequent campus protests that triggered a police crackdown, leaving over 20 students killed and thousands arrested. 

Due to the difficulty of holding student union elections over the last two years, the new student unions will have to address these challenges without being involved in a direct confrontation with the government. The challenges facing the student unions appear to be threefold.

The first major challenge is what to do with the uncertain fate of the Egyptian Student Union. The Higher Education Ministry nullified election results for the general, nationwide student body in December on the grounds of legal loopholes in the voting process.

A revolutionary group of students championing university freedoms and opposing government crackdowns and political interference had swept to victory, overcoming the Voice of Egypt’s Students coalition, which some have linked to the ministry.

The revolutionary union leaders said the ministry nullified the elections because their results did not favor the government. Following student pressure, Higher Education Minister Ashraf al-Shihy referred the matter to the State Council’s Legislation and Jurisprudence Committee. Student leaders reluctantly accepted the legal move as first semester exams approached.

The State Council, however, postponed the declaration of its ruling on the issue three times. The last time was on February 3, when the council declared it would convene again on February 17. Amr al-Helw, vice president of the dissolved Egyptian Student Union and head of Tanta University’s student union, calls this an attempt to win one more time.

“We are now looking for the quickest way to get a judicial order to halt the ministry’s decision, as the State Council continues to procrastinate and waste a lot of time,” says Helw. “We are only left with three months before the year ends, when the legal term for the student union will end. That’s why we are thinking of resorting to the Urgent Affairs Court.”

Maguid Fathy, a leader at the oppositionist Strong Egypt student movement, shares Helw’s concerns. The ministry may have already won the time game through its latest decision, he says.

Helw believes it is too late to file a lawsuit in front of the Administrative Court, which would take too long to issue a verdict. He adds that elected student unions must start working immediately so the Egyptian Student Union issue does not become a barrier for the entire student movement.

While less than hopeful that the legal route will work in students’ favor, Helw offers some optimism: “We are working on a strong comeback for the student unions. The Egyptian Student Union is only one means for this comeback, and not the end result of student activity. The ministry would be deluded if it believed it could crush student activism through its decision. We were part of a strong student movement even before the elections, and through elections we will continue our activism.”

The second major challenge is the sheer number of students that continue to languish behind bars. In a statement on January 27, the Interior Ministry declared that 3,462 students had taken their exams inside prison under the supervision of the Prisons Authority, which coordinated with school and university administrations to facilitate the examination process.

The problem with this number is that it only includes those who applied to take their exams inside prisons, Freedom Seekers Observatory researcher Sief al-Islam Farag explains. It also includes both school and university students, he adds, “so we cannot consider the number released by the Interior Ministry as a true reflection of detained university students.”

Farag cites a survey conducted by his organization on violations against university students between Morsi’s overthrow on July 3, 2013 and November 1, 2015. The report indicates that 5,032 students were arrested in the two years and four months surveyed. While 2,004 students have since been released, 3,028 are still in custody. Farag explains that the total number includes students arrested both on and off university campuses. The survey also suggests that 1,064 students were suspended from universities, with suspension periods ranging from two weeks to a full suspension, while 142 others were prohibited from living in university dormitories.

The same period also saw 245 students killed — 24 on campus — while 300 were referred to military trials. And mirroring findings by a similar report by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, 487 students were found to have been forcibly disappeared, suggesting that students are the demographic most subject to forced disappearance.

Farag believes student unions must campaign for the release of detained students, or at least for improving their conditions in jail, specifically referring to the difficulties they face to take exams inside prisons.

Despite the Interior Ministry’s January statement, Farag suggests that three state bodies are making this process more difficult for students. According to him, university administrations are reluctant to facilitate the paperwork necessary to enable detained students to take their exams, citing cases at Mansoura and Al-Azhar universities. The Prisons Authority, Farag adds, denies detained students access to books and study materials in Aqrab and New Valley prisons.

“What’s more, the prosecution is becoming an arm for the Interior Ministry, as it declines to investigate many complaints filed by detained students who are not being allowed to sit exams in prisons,” Farag says.

While legal and administrative limitations make it very difficult to use student union budgets to hire lawyers or send supplies to detained students, Helw hopes the unions can come together to deal with such cases systematically, building on existing attempts to create a network for the families of those detained in order to connect them to lawyers volunteering to help.

Strong Egypt’s Fathy says many student unions have started establishing new rights and freedom committees at their universities to methodically follow up on the cases of detained and suspended students.

The third and most critical of the challenges, according to Helw, may be the ministerial amendments to student bylaws passed in October 2015, which stipulated that students running in elections must have paid their university fees in full and must not be subject to any disciplinary penalties by the administration, or be affiliated with any terrorist or unlawful organizations.

Several media reports asserted that these new amendments were used to prevent students affiliated with the April 6 Youth Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood from running in the elections, as both groups were banned by a court order in 2013. The deputy head of the High Committee for Student Services and Activities at the Higher Education Ministry, Sobhy Hassanein, denied these claims in previous remarks to Mada Masr.

For Helw, drafting new bylaws is on top of the elected unions’ agendas. Student leaders are reaching out to members of Parliament to amend current bylaws that Parliament is now reviewing, he says.

But Parliament’s recent voting record — it approved 340 presidential decrees issued in the legislative body’s absence over the last two years — offers an unfavorable outlook. Among these approved laws were three decrees that could be very restricting to academic freedoms.

One gave wide powers to university presidents to suspend students without referring them to disciplinary boards if they were found to be involved in acts violence or affiliated with illegal groups. Another gave the president the power to appoint university presidents and deans, making these positions unelected, which was considered a major setback for university independence. The third facilitated the suspension of faculty members found guilty of “participating in vandalism activities on campus or inciting violence.”

Mai Shams El-Din 

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