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Student Union Elections Test Democracy in Egypt

CAIRO–When Egypt student election results were announced they indicated that democracy might work at universities and students could be independent from the political domination of the Muslim Brotherhood. But now the election’s results may get thrown out.

In the latest development, a protest by the Muslim Brotherhood has thrown a decision about whether the students’ vote will be accepted to an administrative court. Non-Islamist students wanted to use a system in which any party would need more than 50 percent of the votes to win the election. The Muslim Brotherhood wants a system in which the party that got the most votes, no matter the percentage, would win.

“The new bylaws did not specify a certain mechanism for voting,” said Hisham Ashraf, the president of the University of Cairo’s student union.

The Brotherhood said in a statement released on April 12 it was not trying to disable the elections. The process that was going to be used in the student elections, the Brotherhood said, was “illegal and contrary to the bylaws.”

The student union elections, held at all public universities in March, resulted in a surprising victory for independent political parties and student groups that oppose the Muslim Brotherhood.

Out of a total of 50 students who are elected to a national student-union committee, the independents won 19 seats and the Brotherhood won 17 seats, including two from Al-Azhar University, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, an Egyptian non-governmental organization that monitored the elections.

The remaining seats were clinched by students affiliated with two opposition political parties, the Al-Dustour Party and the Strong Egypt Party, and the Salafist movement and the Life Makers Movement, which is affiliated with an Islamist sheikh. Election observers were surprised how well opposition parties did given that this was the first election that they had participated in.

About two million students were eligible to vote in the election. “The voting process was carried out in a legal, transparent and public manner at most universities,” said Weam Mukhtar, the director of the academic-freedom program at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. “There was no state intervention and the election was fully conducted by the students.”

Under the former regime, student union elections were held under the strict supervision of the state, mainly security agencies. Last year’s elections were boycotted by several political forces as they depended on the outdated process.

But the election mechanism was modified in October and approved by the Cabinet, Egypt’s chief executive body, last January. Opposition parties objected to this new mechanism, arguing that it served the Muslim Brotherhood, who had presented the idea. But the opposition did not boycott the second set of elections.

Under the new system, which elects many people throughout the university including the president and the trustees, the student election are in the first stage of a five-stage system.

Kamal Mahmoud, one of the campaign coordinators for independent candidates at the University of the Suez Canal, said “The students voted for us because they need the Students’ Union to express their opinions honestly.” In the past, many students complained that the union was just a government mouthpiece.

In the months before the election began, independent students campaigned at the universities and online to encourage participation. “Let’s unite our voice and build our university” and “No more political polarization” were some of the slogans.

“Voting for independents is a new phenomenon in the student-union elections in Egypt,” said Mukhtar. “This is a clear indication that most students would like their universities to be distanced from political polarization and focus on serving students.”

Mahmoud, the campaign coordinator, agreed with Mukhtar. “There is no need to use student unions in politics anymore,” he said. “It’s time to create professional student associations similar to those in Western universities.”

Because of the delay in adopting the new electoral system, the terms of the new elected student-union officials, if the election is approved by the court, will end with the completion of the academic year in June 2013. New elections are scheduled for the beginning of the academic year, in September.

Mariam Reda, a fourth-year student in commerce at the University of Alexandria, said she voted for students who were independent because they promised “a number of scientific and social activities that may help me in getting many professional skills.” Those activities include organizing workshops on communication skills, writing a resume, and holding exhibitions and job fairs where students could meet corporate recruiters.

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