Cairo, Egypt – The police shooting of an engineering student at Cairo University has sparked demonstrations and strikes on campuses across the country, galvanising opposition to the interim government but also raising fears among some students that their protests will be “hijacked” by supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi.
Mohamed Reda, 19, was killed on Thursday afternoon after police violently dispersed a protest in front of the university. Human rights activists who have seen the initial coroner’s report said that it confirms Reda was shot three times before his death.
In response, students from several departments went on strike this weekend, hanging a sign on campus declaring Cairo University “closed”. They held an angry rally on Sunday, at one point setting fire to a police car outside the campus.
“This will continue until the resignations of the interior minister and the minister of higher education,” said Hisham Ashraf, the president of the university’s student union. “[Reda’s] whole college is angry about this.”
Police have denied using lethal force: Hany Abdel Latif, a spokesman for the interior ministry, said that officers only fired tear gas at demonstrators.
The ministry’s denials, contradicted by the coroner’s report and eyewitness testimony, have further enraged students, and even prompted an angry reaction from university officials. In an interview with the private television channel Al-Nahar on Saturday night, Gaber Gad Nasser, the president of Cairo University, demanded a full investigation into Reda’s killing.
“Security forces used excessive force against the university students,” he said. “We do not accept the interior ministry’s statement that it did not use firearms.”
Nasser also rejected allegations that Reda was a Muslim Brotherhood supporter, a sad commentary on the level of political polarisation in Egypt, suggesting that his political affiliation should change the reaction to his death.
‘One student movement’
The Brotherhood and its allies, supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, have been the main organisers of campus protests over the past few months.
Reda’s death has helped to transform those protests into a broader movement, attracting students who supported Morsi’s ouster or describe themselves as non-partisan. Saif el-Din Abdel-Fattah, a Cairo University political science professor who led a pro-Morsi protest last week, called them “allies” working to “renew the January 25 revolution”.
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“He was from their college, so of course they are angry about his death,” said Abdel-Fattah, who was also one of Morsi’s presidential advisers. “But the blood of the Egyptian people is one… there is one student movement.”
Many of the students who came out on Sunday, however, had little sympathy for Morsi, and worried that his supporters would try to co-opt their protests. Indeed, the two groups held largely separate demonstrations; protesters even physically shut the gates to a campus building, locking Morsi’s supporters outside.
“Just because we are protesting doesn’t mean we support Morsi,” said Abdullah Hassan, an economics student at Sunday’s protest. “He was no better than this government. He didn’t fix the interior [ministry] either.”
The pro-Morsi crowd eventually took its protest off-campus to Nahda Square, one of two roundabouts where hundreds of Morsi supporters staging sit-ins were massacred by security forces in August. From there, they marched to Tahrir Square, and held a brief demonstration before police dispersed them with tear gas and soldiers shut the roundabout.
Back on campus, meanwhile, there were no police officers in sight, and the rally received cordial coverage in state media. The differing responses suggest that the “non-partisan” protesters, who enjoy a degree of sympathy from a protest-weary public, are putting pressure on Egypt’s interim government.
The police return
Egypt’s universities have long been viewed as a bellwether for political opinion: Four months before Morsi’s ouster, for example, student union elections were an early sign that the Brotherhood was losing support; the group won only a handful of seats, with most going to independents, or students affiliated with opposition parties.
In the months since Morsi’s ouster, universities have also been somewhat beyond the reach of the security forces, thanks to a 2010 administrative court ruling that barred police from campuses unless requested by school officials or the prosecutor-general. So a group calling itself “Students Against the Coup” has organised dozens of pro-Morsi rallies on campuses across the country.
The consequences, until now, have been largely administrative. More than 200 students at Al-Azhar University were suspended earlier this month, for example, because of their alleged connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. Eight members of the faculty at Assiut University were suspended last week for similar reasons.
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Some of the protests have turned violent, however, particularly at Al-Azhar, one of the Islamic world’s most prestigious institutions and a strong base of Brotherhood support. A dozen students were arrested after an October 30 protest and charged with “inciting riots”. Two weeks later, after a hasty trial, they were sentenced to 17 years in prison, among the harshest sentences handed down to protesters. The verdict was criticised as excessive by some political parties and activists.
At another pro-Morsi demonstration, on November 20, protesters allegedly tried to set fire to a campus building, and one student was shot dead in the ensuing clashes with police. In response to the unrest, officials at Al-Azhar banned demonstrations on campus, and the Egyptian cabinet issued a ruling that allowed police to enter universities to break up protests that “could harm students“.
But the ruling, and a restrictive law issued days later that requires protesters to seek approval from the interior ministry three days before any demonstration, only galvanised opposition to the government. Student unions in five cities, including Cairo and Alexandria, demanded that the cabinet cancel its decision; Reda himself was killed during a protest against the law.
“[Administrators] see all of the protests as being led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not always the case. Some are related to civil rights or freedoms,” said Fatma Serag, a lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a human rights group that works on university issues. “So the universities have taken drastic measures… there was a clear declaration that the police would never enter university premises, because that often happened before the revolution, and that is being reversed.“
Serag called the last few weeks the “most dangerous time on campus since the January 25 revolution”. Students at Sunday’s protest agreed, and vowed to continue their strikes until the government cancels the protest law and withdraws the police. “Our strike will not end so long as we can hear only the sounds of gunfire,” one student union said in a statement.