Exclusion, intimidation and suppression at Egypt’s 2018 student union elections

On November 1, Mohammed al-Dagawi, vice president of the Monufiya University Student Union, rushed to the Engineering Faculty Youth Welfare Office to submit his candidacy papers for the 2018 student union elections. Without much warning, the application window had opened that morning and would close at 5 pm.

Dagawi had looked forward to running again but was shocked to learn a week later that the university’s supervisory committee had decided he was ineligible for reasons related to “protecting the public interest.” Dagawi found that he was not the only one: Nearly 90 percent of union members and student leaders across his university seeking to run again were also barred, he says.

The phenomenon was not limited to Monufiya. At Beni Suef University, several student union members, including the secretary general of the Families Committee as well as the union presidents for the faculties of geoscience, nursing, and special education sciences were all excluded from the lists of eligible candidates “to protect the public interest,” according to Ahmed al-Sayed, head of the Student Union at Beni Suef.

At Cairo University, Islam Magdy, a candidate for the Commerce Faculty union there, told Mada Masr that eleven members of the “voice of commerce” list, of which he is a member, were excluded from the final list of candidates — again “to protect the public interest.”

In fact, students at nearly every university in Egypt were barred from running in union elections in 2018 for the same ill-defined reason.

Due to technical loopholes, arbitrary selection, and a blunt security crackdown, the elections were characterized by low turnout and excluded large numbers of candidates, leading to unions being formed through acclamation and appointment as opposed to an open election process.

No elections were held for 18 faculties at Alexandria University or five at Cairo University. At Arish University’s faculty of sciences no candidates were registered. At Mansoura University the required quorum of voters was not met for any union post. Similar situations occurred in numerous faculties at Ain Shams, Zagazig, Banha, and Suez Canal universities. In all cases, student union positions were filled by either acclamation or appointment.

Student leaders and analysts say this is part of a wider effort by state authorities and university administrators to not only suppress political activism on campuses but also rein in any student attempts to instigate reform or combat university corruption.

The Youth Welfare office and ‘protecting the public interest’

Mahmoud Shalaby, a researcher in the education and students program at the Adalah Center, an Egyptian NGO which studied the elections, tells Mada Masr that most students excluded from running “to protect the public interest” were actually barred because they had confronted university administrators in previous years.

“They raised their voices and the universities don’t want to deal with them again,” Shalaby says. “Student unions could force them to stop embezzlement, so of course the administrations do not take kindly to this.”

At Monufiya University, Dagawi had questioned university administrators about missing revenues of LE4 million, which the university claimed was going toward maintenance of the swimming pool. Administrators had repeatedly claimed to suffer a lack of resources when confronted by students about funding gaps. Dagawi believes his attempts to combat corruption, as well as his role in organizing workshops about student regulations, their history and how they have changed, prompted his exclusion.

Rashid al-Baheiry, director of youth welfare at Monufiya University’s Faculty of Engineering, tells Mada Masr that he was ordered to bar Dagawi and other students. “The central Youth Welfare Office at Monufiya University told us to exclude some students in the public interest, including him, but I have no idea why,” Baheiry says. “He had worked with them at the university level, they know him better. Maybe he was pestering and quarreling with them.”

Aakif Diab, central director of youth welfare at the university, denies Baheiry’s claim. “I don’t know what he’s talking about,” he says. “The sub-committees overseeing the elections in each faculty decide whether candidates meet the necessary conditions. It is not uncommon for someone previously considered eligible to lose eligibility later. A healthy person could end up with cancer tomorrow.” He says Dagawi was not excluded to protect the public interest, but due to a “violation of an article of candidacy, which is determined by the committee overseeing his faculty’s elections.”

At Cairo University Mustafa Arafa, a former member of the Commerce Faculty’s union, believes he was excluded from running again because he and his colleagues exerted pressure on the administration to re-mark exams for a particular subject after several students complained about the results. He says it rejected the request, saying, “We don’t want anyone to give us a headache.”

Hassan Saada, managing director of youth welfare at Cairo University, refutes the claims. “Protecting public interest is not a reason for exclusion. These are all appeals from fellow students against candidates for failing to meet conditions to run. Others were excluded because they did not present an electoral program,” he says. “He [Arafa] was excluded because he only had documented his student activism work during his first year.”

When Mada Masr points out that the university’s regulations do not specify a timeframe to document activism work, Saada responds, “A student could work hard for a year and then sleep afterwards, so I cannot take him.”

While the youth welfare representatives at both Monufiya and Cairo universities denied targeting defiant candidates for exclusion, Shalaby, the Adalah Center researcher, says that youth welfare offices at universities have become a primary force in suppressing student unions. Whereas security agencies were once the main actor in suppressing campus activism, now administrators, via youth welfare offices, are the prime enforcers of a zero-tolerance policy towards any opposition from student unions, he says, and are creating a situation where unions are formed through acclamation and appointment.

Methods of exclusion

The amended executive regulations for the Organization of Universities Law does not mention “protecting the public interest” as a justification to exclude potential student union candidates. But Article 324 of the law stipulates that candidates “must be able to demonstrate documented student activism at the university during their first academic year.” The supervisory committees adopted this requirement for several faculties due to a large number of potential candidates, including many first-year students. Critics say the requirement has been used as justification to exclude troublesome candidates.

Other provisions of the law, which Shalaby describes as “fundamental flaws” in the executive regulations, have also been exploited to bar specific candidates.

For example, students only have the right to appeal their exclusion if they are not included in the initial list of candidates. “Youth welfare offices utilize that condition by including undesirable students in the initial list, and then excluding them from the final list, which the excluded student is then unable to appeal,” Shalaby says.

He also points to an article that allows any student to challenge another student’s candidacy. If the supervisory committee accepts the challenge, the candidate is excluded. “This is what occurred in the case of the vice president of the student union at Tanta University, who was excluded after another student filed an appeal against her candidacy at the behest of the university’s youth welfare office,” Shalaby says.

In addition to excluding undesirable candidates, youth welfare offices have also been accused of cultivating compliant student groups on campus.

At Monufiya University the group Students for Egypt, which is loyal to the administration, was appointed as a coordinator of student activism a few days before the elections. In a letter sent to all faculties, Aakif Diab, the university’s director of youth welfare, referenced Students for Egypt and said the purpose of the appointment was to “to support, preserve, and build on this entity.” A copy of the letter was obtained by Mada Masr.

Asked about the letter by Mada Masr, Diab initially denies mentioning “Students for Egypt” by name. When we read him the letter, he says, “Students for Egypt was referenced because of its presence in eight faculties, but we did not say that we support it.” He adds, “It simply says that if there are groups with similar goals, they should form one large entity… This is the only entity that can be called a central body, so we suggested that it be supported. There are other bodies that have been established that include only first-year students, which are factional groups.”

Mada asked to speak with the spokesperson for the Ministry of Higher Education for this article, but the request was denied. We also tried to contact Tayaa Abdel Latif, head of the supervisory and follow-up committee for the elections and advisor to the Higher Education Minister for Student Activism, but we received no response.

Blunt repression

Alongside moves by university administrators to stamp out activist student unions, security agencies have also continued their long-established role of cracking down on students with political affiliations.

The Strong Egypt student movement, which is tied to the political party founded by jailed politician Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, fielded some candidates in the elections on an individual basis, according to a member who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.

Earlier in the year the movement’s leader, Omar Khattab, was placed on a terrorism list after the group launched a campaign to gather signatures for presidential candidate Khaled Ali. This prompted the Strong Egypt student group to freeze its campus activities out of fear for  its members’ safety, according to Amr Khaled, its former universities secretary.

Other student leaders have been placed on the terrorism list, including former Egyptian Students Union Vice President Amr al-Helw and Tanta University Students Union Vice President Moaaz al-Sharqawi, who is currently in prison.

“How do we participate in an organized fashion if we feel unsafe and face arrest at any moment?” the anonymous Strong Egypt member says. “The police have succeeded in scaring people away.”

The student points out that student regulations have set legal barriers in the way of participation. The regulations contain articles that are vague, such as one that sets “good behavior” as a condition for candidacy. “Who sets the criteria for the applicability of these conditions?” the student says. “These conditions have been set to justify the exclusion of any candidate disliked by the university administration.”

“This has resulted in a docile union that does not defend student rights…Students will graduate without knowing their rights or the regulations,” the student adds “They will graduate without political or electoral awareness and without realizing the importance of local council or parliamentary elections, which is exactly what the government wants.”

Mohamed Masoud, a member of the Revolutionary Socialists movement, told Mada Masr that its presence in universities has also dwindled as a result of the security crackdown. “We used to be present in Cairo, Ain Shams, Kafr al-Sheikh and Alexandria universities, the Technology Institute in 10th of Ramadan City and Mansoura, as well as the British, German, and American universities,” Masoud said. “Now our numbers are small and limited to Cairo and Mansoura universities. We were forced to register for the elections as independent individuals at Mansoura University due to our resulting inability to do organizational work…. We had 30 candidates, all of whom were excluded.”

“For the past three years we have been unable to organize events and meetings for students, so we have lost our presence among the student body,” Masoud adds. “We have also been faced with several security crackdowns, most notably the arrest of the president of the Technology Institute Student Union and another member of the movement on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization, which scares people off joining us.”

Shalaby explains that successive security crackdowns have crippled student movements across the country. “The harsh security crackdown at universities has succeeded in breaking up student activism between those who have been arrested, those who have fled, and those who avoid activism altogether. This has led to the absence of political groups in universities, including both those who are pro-government and opposition, which impacts students’ ability to form political opinions and distorts their relationship with public life.”

Mohamed Ashraf Abu Emaira 

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