CAIRO – Two months after the overthrow of Egypt’s civilian leader, the military-backed interim government may put a controversial security measure into place at state-owned universities.
Egypt’s Supreme Council of Universities and justice ministry appear poised to grant judicial power to campus security personnel, which many activists and student groups fear could restrict political freedoms.
Some view the measure as an effort to unravel gains made after the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
“Such a decision is taking Egypt back to the era where the emergency law was imposed, and it reminds us of the state security apparatus activities within the universities during Hosni Mubarak’s regime,” said a statement by the Students of the Al-Dostour Party, a liberal group.
With judicial authority, which could be granted by the justice ministry after the current discussion, campus guards would be eligible to refer reports filed by co-workers or others involved in the workplace to the public prosecutor, according to Egyptian law. They would have the right to collect evidence, information and question anyone in the workplace.
“Currently the guards, because they are not police, don’t have any authority except if someone breaks in,” said Mohamed Abou El Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and a founding member of the March 9 movement, which promotes independence of universities. Discussions are ongoing about how to give guards more authority, he said on Monday.
Some people suggested they are in favor of such an initiative at a time when political unrest and criminal activity is rife nationwide.
“If there is a destruction of public property, theft – in this case I think it is legitimate that those security people at university have the capacity to write reports about students who are suspected of being involved in these acts,” said Mustapha Al Sayyid, a professor at Cairo University.
Security is a big problem on campuses, Al Sayyid said, and security personnel have not had authority to act in criminal cases. With the new measure, offenders could be held accountable.
Repressive state-affiliated security personnel vanished from campuses after Mubarak’s ouster and were replaced by civilian security units. Campuses thrived with political life, but they were also home to bloody clashes as well as protests and sit-ins that at times led to the destruction of campus property.
Mohamed Nagi, a researcher at the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, an independent group that advocates for academic freedom and other forms of free intellectual expression, said some university administrations failed to adequately develop the civilian security departments that replaced old guards, which poses challenges: Authorities now seek to grant judicial power to two or three senior officials in each unit and employees are neither well trained nor qualified, he said.
“We acknowledge that the security situation in the university campus is unstable since the revolution of January 25,” Nagi said, referring to the 2011 uprising. But giving judicial authority to untrained university employees is not the solution, he said. “We are afraid that this decision will be used as a tool to repress some students who have political affiliation.”
Moreover, if employees hold judicial power there would be legal confusion, the association said, as the stipulation puts them under supervision of the public prosecutor general rather than the university president.
“This confusion is a dangerous threat to the independence of the university,” the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression said in a statement, “as the president of the university will not have any authority over the security personnel once they have judicial power.”
Deputy Prime Minister Hossam Eissa said on Sunday that the decision is aimed at countering acts of sabotage against state-owned campuses, according to local news reports. Ministry of Justice spokesman Ezzat Khamis had told local media the intent is to limit rioting and violence amid deep political divisions that led to hundreds of deaths in recent weeks.
The explanations did not quell activists’ fears, and many believed that security personnel would be able to arrest students.
“They are trying to contain the upcoming movement against military rule,” said Mohamed Soliman, president of the Al-Dostour Party Students, suggesting there may be public backlash against Egypt’s leaders and Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who overthrew Mohamed Morsi on July 3.
Suhaib Abdel-Maksoud, spokesperson of the Muslim Brotherhood Students, said the timing of the new measure is key. It comes just two weeks before the start of the new semester.
“The government wanted to issue this decision before the start of the academic year, as they fear that there will be a wave of protests by students against the military coup,” he said. “They want to create a tool that they can use to curb any protest movement among the university students.”
But student groups are fighting the initiative. Soliman said they are planning for protests on campus. On Tuesday, all of Cairo University’s student union leaders voted against it, said Hisham Ashraf, head of the university’s student union.
“We will not give the chance for the government again to interfere and run the university,” Ashraf said. “We will do whatever it takes to protect our rights as a student and our academic freedom.”
Still, some seem to welcome plans for improved security.
Ain Shams University will implement the decision as soon as possible, Mohamed El Toukhi, vice president for education and student affairs, told Al Masry Al Youm. Judicial power will be given to three security personnel who have a law degree and training on “security issues,” he told the paper.
Toukhi added the authority will be used only in cases related to sexual harassment, drugs and violence.
“The allegations that we will use this new measure to repress students is false,” Toukhi told Al Masry Al Youm. “The university administration seeks to make the campus a safe place for all the students.”
However, the Ain Shams University student union said in a statement on its Facebook page that they “reject by all means” granting exceptional powers to campus security personnel.
“We are against any measures that would lead to limit our freedom of speech,” the union said. “There are no compromises on this issue.”