Following the 2013 military coup, students affiliated with – and sympathetic to – the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated in public universities to demand the return of the deposed President Mohamed Morsi. Their demonstrations turned universities into a new battleground between security forces and students as Egypt’s new rulers moved to crack down on student activism.
The clampdown has been harsh.
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Egypt’s ruling generals have used laws, regulations, procedures, and security tools to subdue student dissidents. The government has employed private security companies to patrol public university campuses and pushed university administrations to enforce harsh penalties against non-compliant students.
The general prosecutor has transferred hundreds of student dissidents to criminal courts and even more have remained in police detention. In the academic year following the coup, at least 14 students were killed in campus violence and hundreds arrested or suspended.
Students, however, continued to hold protests in public universities and mobilise against pro-government candidates in student unions elections.
In the first semester of the 2013 – 2014 academic year alone, there were 1,677 student protests at public universities across Egypt, with the largest numbers occurring at al-Azhar University, whose campuses are scattered across several provinces of the country; Cairo University; Ain Shams University; and Alexandria University.
The unanticipated student union election results demonstrated that student opposition to the government remained strong, and that the government’s assault on student activism neither took politics out of university campuses nor silenced student groups.
In the face of increasing state-sponsored violence, several student groups gradually began to call for the wholesale rejection of the constitutional, legal and political measures adopted by the new political order.
Students’ demands gradually shifted away from emphasising the return of Morsi to office and focused more on denouncing Egypt’s ruling military government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, liberal and leftist parties opposed to them as well as independent NGOs.
Between 2013 and 2016, student groups protested at the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and its designation as a “terrorist” entity. They condemned the mass killing of Muslim Brotherhood’s members and supporters in the violent dispersal of sit-ins on August 14, 2013.
Students also took bold stances regarding the security services’ implication in human rights abuses, on university campuses and elsewhere. They demanded trials for police personnel involved in murdering students during protests and the immediate release of students imprisoned and detained for political purposes, as well as those who were forcibly disappeared.
Some student protests decried the provision in the 2014 constitution that referred civilians to military courts and the passage of undemocratic laws such as the anti-protest and “terrorism” laws.
In addition, efforts to restrain the role of the security services on campuses moved closer to the forefront of the student agenda. Between 2013 and 2016, students organised a number of vigils to express their rejection of the Supreme Council of Egyptian Universities’ decision in September 2013 that made administrative security units operating on campuses responsible for “maintaining security and preventing riots, violence and bullying.”
Students also protested about the legal basis of giving those security units the right to issue arrest warrants and initiate litigation against students. The Supreme Council of Egyptian Universities’ decision essentially overruled a 2010 court ruling that banned the presence of any security units or forces on university campuses.
Despite student protests, the security services have sustained their presence on campus. Indeed, the new authoritarian order has engineered a far-reaching set of tools to repress student activism.
In 2013, Adly Mansour, the interim president, amended the Organisation of Universities Act (Act No 49 of 1972, with article 184 including the amendment) to give presidents of public universities the authority to dismiss – without litigation – students charged by universities’ administrations with subverting the educational process, endangering university facilities, targeting members of the academic and administrative staff or inciting violence on campuses.
Since the amendment was made, university administrations have demonstrated a higher propensity to take punitive action against students involved in protests.
In the academic year 2013-2014, for example, 1,052 students were referred to university disciplinary boards for investigation and more than 600 students were dismissed. Dozens more were prevented from completing exams.
This repression campaign continued in the academic year 2014-2015 and resulted in a lull in student protests. During the first semester, student groups organised 572 protests, the largest numbers of which occurred, once again, at the universities of al-Azhar, Cairo, Ain Shams, and Alexandria.
Students participating in the protests included members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as liberal and leftist-inspired student groups, which gradually began to oppose the new authoritarianism.
These latter groups drew their members from parties such as the Strong Egypt Party, the Bread and Liberty Party, the Constitution Party and the Movement of Revolutionary Socialists.
Frequent clashes on campuses between students and administrative security units, as well as between students and private security units, in the academic year 2014-2015 facilitated a dramatic increase in the overall number of security forces operating in university spaces.
Violent dispersals of peaceful vigils became the norm, and they often resulted in mass arrests and, often, in the killing of a few students. The state also did not refrain from employing its other repressive tools to crush student activism, such as dismissal from universities, arrests and court proceedings, resulting in harsh sentences.
The political scene at Egyptian universities changed drastically in the academic year 2015-2016. Vibrant student activism, which had characterised the two preceding years, largely disappeared, revealing the efficiency of employing repressive tools.
The few student protests that took place during this period consisted of vigils and demonstrations designed to show solidarity with imprisoned and detained students. But they did not go unpunished by university administrations and the security services. Thirty-two students were arrested during the first semester and 52 during the second. Either administrative security units, private security forces, or police forces, whose visible presence on campuses continued, made the arrests.
Despite the slower pace of student activism, two significant incidents in the academic year 2015-2016 demonstrated that student groups were not completely quashed.
The first incident took place in late 2015 when the government, through the Ministry of Higher Education, relatively unsuccessfully attempted to exert control over the elections of student unions in public universities. The second incident came in April 2016, when students joined others in holding vigils and demonstrations to protest the signing of the maritime border agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
In October 2015, the Ministry of Higher Education instructed university administrations to exclude certain students from running in student union elections. The effort targeted those allegedly affiliated or sympathising with the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as students who led or participated in anti-government protests and faced disciplinary punishment.
On October 8, the Ministry of Higher Education issued a ministerial decree (Decree no. 4307 of 2015) to make these changes into law. The decree stipulated that candidates in the elections of student unions should not be affiliated with organisations or entities that were criminalised under the law or declared “terrorist”. It also stipulated that candidates’ university records should be free of any disciplinary punishment.
Student union elections were held in public universities across the country in November 2015, and three main student platforms participated in them. The Voice of Egypt Student Coalition – which had strong ties with university administrations and, through them, with the security services – pushed for the de-politicisation of universities.
Mostly liberal and leftist students aspired to oppose the new authoritarianism and reinvigorate student activism. Groups of independent students rejected ties to both the government and the opposition; they framed student unions as representatives of the rights and interests of the student body.
The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, was banned from fielding candidates.
Liberal, leftist, and independent students won most of the unions’ seats, much to the chagrin of pro-government candidates. Ties with university administrations, the security services and promotion campaigns managed by the Ministry of Higher Education had failed to ensure the success of the Voice of Egypt Coalition.
Two independent members of the student unions were further elected to head the executive office of the General Union of Egyptian Students, an umbrella union in which all unions are represented.
These unanticipated student union election results demonstrated that student opposition to the government remained strong, and that the government’s assault on student activism neither took politics out of university campuses, nor silenced student groups.
These were the only elections in which pro-government candidates lost and was one of few electoral systems that the security services had failed to control. They stood in contrast to the presidential elections in 2014, the parliamentary elections in 2015 and elections of professional associations’ boards.
Following the elections, the Ministry of Higher Education tried to overturn the results. The ministry refused to ratify the results, and in so doing, denied the elected union the legal basis for their existence. In December 2015, the ministry dissolved the executive office of the General Union of Egyptian Students, citing a “procedural error”.
These steps underscore the new authoritarianism’s dedication to making sure that public universities do not slip out of its tight control.
As of early 2017, Egypt’s ruling generals have continued to pursue student groups that resist their clampdown and that mobilise against security interventions in universities.
The protests against the signing of the maritime border agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia also highlighted the fact that universities remain, to a degree, a site of opposition to the new authoritarianism and its policies.
Protests against the agreement originated in universities and later spilled into the broader public. Student groups and unaffiliated students organised massive protests between April 15 and April 25, 2016, in several public universities across Egypt, in tandem with the broader mobilisation centred around the Syndicate of Journalists.
As in the syndicate’s protests, the security services used excessive force to crush the April 2016 student protests and arrested scores of students who later faced court proceedings.
However, the strong participation of students in the April 2016 protests highlighted the fact that their interest in public affairs and political matters was not quashed, and that the generals’ clampdown did not achieve the complete depoliticisation of public universities.