Egypt campus: The people versus the regime – again

Student involvement in the protests could change the political landscape.

The detention of 21 young women shocked Egyptians and the international community [EPA]

This is how an Egyptian described the measures taken by the current ruling regime against university students, “The elders are resisting the source which feeds people’s determination.”

The recent violent clashes which took place on Monday 9 December at Al-Azhar university has been the last in a series of persistent students protests since the start of the academic year in September.

Egyptian students recently started to brave a new path between the two camps that have dominated the political scene since the events of July 3. The importance of students’ involvement – pre-university and university levels – is that they brought other segements of society into the current political game which has previously been monopolised by two players, supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and supporters of Minister of Defence and former Head of Military Intelligence Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Decline of pro-Sisi camp?

Since July 3, the ruling regime has been committing human rights violations against the opposition, the worst of which was the violent dispersion of the Rabaa and Nahda pro-Morsi sit-ins where hundreds were killed. However, the rallies organised by The National Alliance to Support Legitimacy (NASL) have not been able to force the regime to the negotiation table – at least officially – or put a stop to the increasing repression and brutality.

At the same time, several factors have been at play which might eventually result in an erosion of the popularity of  pro-Sisi camp as more and more Egyptians are looking for other alternatives.These people either joined the pro-Morsi camp, or joined an increasing number of Egyptians who are rejecting the miliatary-led government policies but not necessarily agreeing with the pro-Morsi faction.

If events continue on the same trajectory, the student protests are only expected to get bigger and gain wider public support and sympathy, which might change political events in Egypt.

Among those factors is the performance of Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi’s government, which has been criticised by the opposition, as well as Sisi supporters and official media outlets. The government has failed to maintain stable prices for basic goods, including food and fuel, despite several attempts to do so. Traffic has been a chronic problem for Egyptians with no clear plan or steps taken to alleviate it. Most importantly, ensuring security has been another disastrous failure by this government, which was brought about by the Minister of Defence. Tourism, foreign policy, education:The list of failures goes on. Currently, the crisis is being felt at all social levels.

In fact, the latest credible survey conducted in September by Zogby Research Services shows that almost half of Egyptians do not have confidence in the interim government of Acting President Adly Mansour, and 46 percent think that the country is worse off after the July 3 military action.

There are no indications of the popularity of the pro Sisi camp. Their last show of force in the streets was on July 26; since then, there have been no indications – scientific or unscientific -pointing to the number of Sisi supporters increasing or even staying the same.

Stirring up students’ anger

One important factor weighs in amid the worsening circumstances. Students’ anger has been growing gradually since September when the Minister of Justice authorised [Ar] the utilisation of the “judicial arrest” by campus security, which meant that any student can be stopped and arrested on campus.

In November, students launched their demonstrations on campuses after several of them were detained by the police. November 21 witnessed a new escalation when the interim government authorised the police to enter campuses to put down demonstrations without permission from the university officials, which was unprecedented since the 2010 legal decision to ban any form of police presence on campuses, unless the university granted them permission. The same night, a student at al-Azhar University was killed [Ar] after police forces attacked the dormitories using tear gas and birdshots.

Since then, demonstrations have been non-stop throughout several universities nationwide, with occasional flare-ups and more students being arrested, killed, and suspended from school.

Setting a different precedent

But, what make these demonstrations different from the other pro-Morsi ones? And is their strength, if any, that would place them as a threat to the ruling regime?

In fact, the strength of the students’ protests lie in several factors. They:

  • are fighting for undisputable principles, not special interests or power – mainly for justice and freedom against police oppression and military rule.
  • represent different societal classes and segments.
  • have almost nothing to lose, no dependents, no jobs.
  • are easily motivated and mobilised.
  • organise through their faculties, specialisations, and on-campus activities.
  • have deep conviction that demonstrations can change political realities, especially after the January 25 revolution.

The student protests are able to link the pro-Morsi demonstrations, which have been on-going for more than five month, to a wider societal base. Students are seen in the Egyptian society as apolitical actors, which makes it easy for people to give them sympathy and support.

A good example is a recent case that infuriated Egyptians and the international community. Twenty-one female protesters, including seven girls, were arrested in Alexandria after taking part in “a peaceful pro-Morsi demonstration”, according to an Amnesty International report. The images of the young women dressed in white, smiling and carrying flowers while behind bars put a lot of pressure on the ruling authorities. The pro-Sisi media found it hard to fit them in the ready-made stereotype of a pro-Morsi supporter, and international human rights organisations called them “prisoners of conscience” and demanded their immediate and unconditional release.

The late-November court ruling sentencing 14 of them to 11 years and one month in prison was appealed and reduced to a one year suspension.

Revolution: Act II

The ordeal made the women into heroes and sent a clear and encouraging message to the students and protesters at large: Sustained pressure on the regime set the women free. A pattern is seen with students that are detained or killed by the police, their names and faces become icons that fuel the demonstrations.

If events continue on the same trajectory, the student protests are only expected to get bigger and gain wider public support and sympathy, which might change political events in Egypt.

The strength of the January 25 Revolution stemmed from the simplicity of its demands and the absence of a second viable party competing with Mubarak: It was the people versus the regime. Almost three years later, a similar scenario is being replayed through the increasing impact of the student protests.

Abdelrahman Rashdan is a political science academician. He holds a Master’s degree in International Affairs and a Certificate in Middle East Studies from Columbia University.