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Newly elected student unions indicate the dissipation of politics from universities

Attempts by the state to quell student activity since violent clashes swept universities in 2013 culminated last week in student union elections that produced politics-free unions.

Universities did not hold student union elections for two years following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. When student union elections did take place in 2015, despite the state’s efforts, the pro-government student coalition did poorly, with students associated with the 2011 uprising sweeping a surprising victory in the first student union vote held since 2013.

Elections were not held in 2016, and the government tightened its grip ahead of this year’s elections, which took place last week, resulting in the absence of political groups from unions altogether, both pro-government and oppositional.

An insufficient number of candidates and a failure to meet quorum meant that in many faculties union representatives were either selected or appointed. The unions are now mostly made up of independent students and students involved in university social activities, indicating that the unions’ role will be confined to university campuses, in contrast with their historical role as national political players.

Nipped in the bud

“The state didn’t want to have politics in the elections, whether supporters or opponents,” Mohamed Nagui, student affairs researcher at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression explains. He traces this to the 2015 elections and the success of a large number of oppositional students. “Now the state wants no politics at all.”

Amr al-Sherif, former student union president at Monufiya University, agrees that after the lesson they learned in 2015, the union was careful not to leave much space for maneuver when it comes to student elections. “The current unions will not be preoccupied with politics, the attention will be only on university activities,” he adds.

While several students were eliminated from competing in 2015, eliminations were much higher in these elections.

Omar Khattab, the general secretary of the Strong Egypt student movement, affiliated with the oppositional Strong Egypt Party, says that some of the group’s candidates were eliminated from the preliminary list in the 2015 elections on the pretext that “they failed to submit all required documents.” However, he says that this year, “exclusions took place on an even larger scale and more brazenly.”

Many students who submitted their applications for candidacy were excluded even before appeals were filed. Sources in universities told the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm shortly before the elections took place that sorting through applicants took an unusually long time, due to the high number of applicants with “unidentified affiliations.”

“The university does not harbor bias for or against any student, as long as the reason behind their decision to run is to enrich student activities, serve their colleagues and advocate for students’ interests on campus,” the same source told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “They should not be political representatives off campus, serve any other partisan purposes, or serve the interests of certain groups.”

A disproportionate number of oppositional candidates were eliminated.

University administrations do not usually provide rejected potential candidates with reasons for their rejection, but the Administration for Youth Welfare (the entity that oversees the elections) at Fayoum University told unapproved applicants that the reason is security-related,” says Khattab.

Eliminations occurred in faculties across the country. A fifth of Strong Egypt’s potential candidates in Fayoum, for example, were excluded from the preliminary list, according to Khattab. Over a third of all candidates at the Faculty of Engineering’s union elections at Monufiya University were eliminated, according to Bread and Freedom Student Coordinator Farha Nader.

Even after this, there were further eliminations, with a high number of appeals against students being accepted.

According to Mahmoud Shalaby, a researcher in the Education and Students program at the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, rejected applicants were filtered out of preliminary lists, as opposed to being filtered out of final lists, which was the case before.

According to Shalaby, these potential candidates were filtered out under the influence of security agencies, which aim to exclude students who are politically active or affiliated with political parties, or the influence of the Administration for Youth Welfare, which aims to exclude all independently active students and only allow traditional student bodies — such as student clubs that are more loyal to the state and students who take part in official competitions.

Another factor that contributed to the small number of candidates was the short window for applications. After a five-week delay, the Higher Education Ministry only opened registration on November 29 — a date that was announced just two days earlier — and the preliminary candidate list was announced on December 3. The tight schedule allowed candidates only one day to get their registration documents in order and another business day to submit them on account of the weekend and the Prophet’s birthday, a national holiday.

Bylaws stipulate that in the absence of candidates or the required voters quorum, the university administration appoints a student chosen at its discretion, provided that this student is eligible to run.

These two situations were inevitable, as there were fewer candidates than the seats available in several universities, due to the short time available for applications and the large number of candidates eliminated.

In Cairo University, the elections were settled by acclamation in eight faculties, meaning there was only one candidate, and by appointment in four, due to failure to meet quorum, while elections were completed in 12 faculties, according to the university’s head of youth care Hassan Saeda. Similarly in Alexandria, elections were won by acclamation in 14 faculties, by administration appointment in eight and by competitive elections in just five.

Although the chances of opposition groups were severely diminished in the elections due to the security interference, this did not serve the pro-government group Students for Egypt, which also garnered a small number of seats.

Political activism diminished, student groups dismantled

After Morsi’s ouster in 2013, a wave of political violence swept university campuses, resulting in the death of approximately 20 students and the suspension and arrest of thousands of students for their activism and political affiliations. This has significantly restrained independent student activity in general and the activity of politically-oriented student groups in particular.

Omar Gaber, the general coordinator of the Sout al-Midan student movement, which operates in Alexandria University, believes that, despite this, the 2015 electoral lists brought together students of political affiliations with others who are mainly concerned with social activity and provision of services, but who also hold an interest in public issues and policies adopted with regard student activism and reject the interventions of administrations and security agencies.

The formation of these electoral lists created a more diverse and balanced group in the National Student Union, Gaber believes. “Abdalla Anwar, the president of the NSU, was an independent representative and not state-loyal. Amr al-Helw, the vice president, was politically active. The board was diverse, balanced and overall independent,” says Gaber.

The Higher Education Ministry, however, refused to recognize the results of the National Student Union elections, and this year the body was done away with, according to the latest amendments to bylaws published in the Official Gazette on November 23.

Many students who are affiliated with political groups and movements were arrested and harassed by security forces, following a series of events they organized as part of the campaign to protest the cession of sovereignty over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir over to Saudi Arabia, according to Strong Egypt’s Khattab.

Since 2014, the registrations for all student clubs that are affiliated with political parties — such as Strong Egypt, Dostour, Bread and Freedom, the Popular Current and even the Nour Party — were nullified,” says Shalaby, the Adalah Center researcher. “Over the past two years, registration of new clubs has become impossible on account of the excessive stalling by administrations, as some of them claim that registration is not yet open or that required documents were not submitted and so on.”

Gaber assesses the current moment as a bleak one for student activism.

Political student groups are no longer active, neither on campuses nor social media,” says Gaber. “Most student activists have graduated, and younger students are not joining the movement for fear of the consequences of any activity, political or independently service-oriented. There is no student movement or the prospect of one. Students who take individual initiative are likely to be arrested. If they do not get arrested before they run in the elections, they would not be approved or would be pushed out. There is a general sense of fear and frustration.”

Mostafa Mohie