During the referendum days, the youth, with full consciousness and dedication and bearing their responsibility towards their country, lined up and voted their opinion on amending their country’s constitution. With their bare hands, they wrote their own future and that of their own children. So we should thank Egypt’s youth, our children and grandchildren, for affirming our hope that this country’s flag will be always kept up after us by youthful strong hands of a conscious generation capable of holding the responsibility and willing to pursue what their fathers and grandfathers have started.
— Councillor Farouq Lasheen, the head of the National Elections Authority, at a press conference announcing the results of the referendum on constitutional amendments on April 22.
Thursday [April 18] at 12 pm, the Student Union asked us to head to the largest lecture hall in the Arts Faculty. Most people there were military school students, and the dean, his deputy, and some faculty members were there. As the song “Teslam al-Ayady” played, a faculty member said, “we approve these constitutional amendments and all of you should go and vote.”
— Sayed*, a freshman student in the Arts Faculty at Mansoura University, speaking to Mada Masr.
Between Lasheen’s statements and Sayed’s experience lies the story of how the youth were mobilized to become a visible force in support of the referendum on constitutional amendments held in May.
The amendments, which were passed by an 88.8 percent majority according to the National Elections Authority, gives President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi two more years in his current term, and the right to run for a third, six-year term. The amendments also open the door for the Armed Forces to further intervene in politics in the name of “protecting the civil state.”
Heavy state-sponsored advertisements proliferated shortly before the referendum was held urging Egyptians to vote yes. During the voting period, boxes of food supplies were given to people casting ballots, while others were simply arrested and taken to polling stations by force, as reported by Mada Masr.
And mobilization tactics encouraging university students to “write their own future” were no different.
The Mansoura University Student Union posted an announcement on its Facebook page for a photo competition. Students were to vote with their families and relatives and document their vote with pictures of their fingers stained with phosphorus ink, used to prevent fraud. Those whose photos get first place (the basis of the ranking is unclear) were to be awarded trips to Alexandria, Cairo, and Port Said. The post was later removed.
Similarly, Cairo University President Mohamed al-Khesht addressed his students ahead of the referendum, promising “surprises” for students that included exemptions from tuition fees for those who are late on payments and a grade bonus of 5 percent for failing students, on the occasion of the referendum.
Ahmed*, a student at Fayoum University, told Mada Masr that a group of freshman students marched to the office of the university president, where they were joined by the president, his deputy, some deans of faculties, and other students wearing shirts with “Egypt’s Future” and “Students for Egypt” written on them. Carrying Egypt’s flags as the pro-government songs “Teslam al-Ayady” and “Abou al-Regoula” played on the university’s screens, the march left the university, surrounded by police for security.
The Fayoum University administration also brought buses to transport students to polling stations, according to Ahmed. Inside the buses, fellow students wearing the same “Egypt’s Future” T-shirts were leading the process of bussing their colleagues to the voting stations.
Students recounted similar experiences in other universities.
“We went to the university at 8 am and did not attend any lectures. We were divided into groups, one group for each bus. University professors took us here [a polling station] to vote and brought us back to the university,” said Maisaa*, a student at the University of South of the Valley.
The mobilization of the students was taken up mostly by the pro-regime Future of the Nation Party and Students for Egypt group.
At the polling station, Maisaa’s colleague told her to deeply immerse her fingers in the phosphorous ink so that she will be allowed to enter the upcoming exams. Maissa was told that university administrators must see the ink in order for her to enter the exams, she said.
Mohamed Sayed, the president of South of the Valley University’s student union, denied these accounts of coercion.
“No student was coerced to go vote. All those who went to vote did so voluntarily,” Sayed said. “We provided them with cars and buses under the direction of the university’s president and his deputy, and organized seminars under the title “you are the future” to explain the amendments and the meaning of the constitution.”
Pro-regime and amendments figures such as Mostafa Bakry, an MP and media figure, were among those hosted in the university’s seminars.
Some professors in Fayoum University resorted to direct threats of grade deductions if students did not participate, according to Ahmed, who said that in the Faculty of Arts, professors threatened to deduct 10 points from the overall grades of students who do not vote.
Mona*, a student at Kafr el-Sheikh University, told Mada Masr that professors told her colleagues they should take the designated buses to the voting stations and then come back to take their oral exams.
“In one of the classes, the teaching assistant refused to take attendance inside before we went to vote,” Mona said. “When some of us said that we do not have national ID cards, the assistant said that we will go there and take a picture to show that Kafr el-Sheikh University sent its students to vote. The students went and attendance was taken on the bus.”
After July 2013, Egyptian universities witnessed a period of strong political mobilization that lasted for two years before security authorities and the Ministry of Higher Education managed to effectively end this political activity through a series of decisions, starting with suspending the results of the 2015 student union elections, then canceling the national student union in new bylaws, and finally preventing certain candidates who have oppositional stances from running in the latest elections.
Ahmed Khalaf, former president of the student union of the Faculty of Political Science and Economics at Cairo University in 2013, told Mada Masr that when the state failed to create a political arm within universities, preventing the rise of any other political groups in universities became its priority. However, the state still wanted to present an “image of youth participation in the referendum,” he said, and with the lack of any regime-aligned student leadership inside schools, the state-affiliated Future of the Nation Party had to intervene directly.
*Names changed for the safety of the students