University campuses across Egypt have become hubs of dissent, but the government is cracking down.
CAIRO, Egypt — It was the evening before the first day of the new academic year for university students in Egypt. As many of them were readying their books and bags and preparing for the long year ahead, the country’s security forces were making preparations of their own.
That night in October, heavily armed police raided 250 homes across the country, arresting 71 students. Yousef Mohamed, a 21-year-old engineering undergraduate at Fayoum University, was one of them.
The police who took him away accused him of being a member of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. “You’re making terrorism in this country. You’re the ones killing us,” one officer told him.
Following the removal of President Mohammed Morsi in an army-led coup and the violent dispersal of sit-ins led by his supporters that left more than 1,000 dead, Egypt has witnessed a brutal crackdown on anyone who speaks out against the government.
While many protesters have since then either been locked up or scared into submission, Egypt’s university campuses have become bastions of opposition.
In the last year thousands of students have continued to protest. Al-Azhar, Cairo University and Ain Shams in the capital, Alexandria University in Egypt’s second city, and Zagazig and Mansoura in the Delta as well as Minya in Upper Egypt have become hubs of dissent.
Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned following Morsi’s ouster and many of whose members have been imprisoned since, make up the bulk of the protesters. While the demonstrations began last year with calls for Morsi’s return, they have since evolved into calls for the release of detained students, opposition to the presence of security forces on campus and the coup more generally.
But the government is doing all it can to stop them. In the weeks leading up to the start of the academic year, it made clear that it would no longer tolerate dissent on campus.
In June, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi passed a decree stating that university presidents and deans would be appointed by the president, not elected — a return to a Hosni Mubarak-era policy. He later gave a speech at Cairo University in which he instructed students to leave behind “destructive and negative activities and thinking.”
Shortly before the start of term, the Ministry of Education announced that students would be banned from engaging in political activities inside universities.
Then came the raids. Ahmed, an undergraduate in computer science at Helwan University in Cairo, was another taken that night in October.
His sister Enas says Ahmed often led the chants during the marches on campus. He was a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, but not a member.
“He’s very social, he likes people and people love him. I feel like he’s a big child,” she says. She expects he will be sentenced to at least a year in jail: “We put our hope in God but the world is black.”
Enas said police took Ahmed’s phone, his laptop, his planner, some papers and a poster of the four-fingered Rabaa el-Adaweya sign used to demonstrate solidarity with protesters that were killed during a sit-in there last year.
The family of Yousef, the engineering student, say he only participated in one demonstration on campus the year before to protest the presence of police on university grounds.
Among other charges, Yousef stands accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. His family denies the charge.
“He’s just not an ideological creature,” says his cousin Hassan, “I guess we’d call him liberal, a liberal socialist or a liberal democrat.”
The Islamist “bogeyman”
Though students of all political stripes have been rounded up, Islamist students are bearing the brunt of the crackdown. This is also true off-campus.
“Islamists have already been vilified as the bogeyman so if you always point to them, they have less wide public support,” says Noha Radwan, an Egyptian academic who took part in the Tahrir Square protests of 2011 that removed long-term autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Because of the vilification of Muslim Brotherhood supporters by the government “non-Islamists are less likely to have sympathy” for them, she adds.
Ahmed and Yousef are among more than 300 detained since the beginning of this academic year. More than 800 remain in jail from the year before.
Most arrested students are slapped with a standard package of charges that include membership in a banned group, violating laws against protest, and hooliganism.
The arrests have left many students living in fear.
Youssof, a fourth year student at al-Azhar University, says he and his classmates have begun to take extraordinary measures to evade arrest.
“We don’t tell each other where we live,” he says. “If one of us in detained, if we don’t know where the [others] live it is better for us and better for them.”
As the government has stepped up its efforts to put down the protests, clashes between students and police on campus have grown more violent.
In early October, police used birdshot, tear gas and — some witnesses claim — live fire during a demonstration at Alexandria University, leading to the death of a student named Omar Sharif.
Just a week after Sharif’s death, the army took advantage of a new law that allows it to assist the police in guarding public facilities, storming Mansoura University to disperse protesters.
The students also have to contend with a private security firm called Falcon that has been hired by the Ministry of Education to oversee the gates of universities.
Students object to invasive searches that cause long lines, and fear that Falcon’s mandatory checks are to look for political material, rather than simply dangerous items.
“The government says there are no police on campus but police cars are right outside and [Falcon] is helping the police” alleged a recent graduate who declined to be identified.
At Cairo’s al-Azhar university students responded to the extra security measures by burning three of Falcon’s metal detectors.
Sherif Khaled, the security firm’s managing director, insists that his employees have no interaction with the police and are like any other university security guards.
He says opposition to his company’s guards on campus “is from a particular group that doesn’t want classes to start.”
Activists, meanwhile, see police, the army and private security firms as stifling dissent.
Mohamed Nagy, an activist who documents the detentions of students, argues that for as long as peaceful protests are suppressed, the violence on campus will likely continue.
“When they are prevented from expressing themselves peacefully, of course they will take another path.”