CAIRO – At the American University in Cairo, on the capital’s eastern outskirts, students gathered last week to discuss an increasingly widespread concern on campuses in Egypt: Student imprisonment.
Late last month, American University in Cairo (AUC) students Abd El Rahman El Boghdady, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, and Abdullah Ibrahim Ghandour, a sophomore, were sentenced to five years in jail and slapped with massive fines for violating a protest law that curbs freedom of expression. The meeting, the jail sentences and a series of protests mark a spread in the political unrest on campuses from public to private universities.
“Sometimes we as human beings learn the hard way,” said Ayman El Ezabi, chair of the electronics engineering department at the university at a forum last week. When protesting students at public universities in the country were shot and killed by security forces who violently intervened in campus unrest, “we didn’t move a finger,” he said. “When it hit home and some of our own students got arrested… then we started to move. Some good sometimes comes out of calamity.”
Since the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted from power last July, students at public universities nationwide have protested continuously against what they say was an unjust coup by then-army chief—and now presidential frontrunner—Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and more broadly at shrinking freedom of expression and police brutality. Demonstrations often devolved into clashes with police, leading to at least 12 student deaths and authorities have detained dozens of students since last September.
In reaction to the security response, protesting public-university students added the release of imprisoned students to their list of demands. But continued protests have only propelled more detentions. At Al-Azhar University, a public institution in the capital, five students were arrested on Friday while protesting the detention of classmates and chanting against the army and police, according to local news media.
In the past, private-university campuses have remained more subdued when it comes to political issues. “There have been protests against military rule, against police brutality, but they have never gotten so much attention,” said Fatima Al Sayed, a junior at the American University in Cairo. “Students at AUC are typically politically apathetic… We live in a bubble.”
But with the recent sentencing of two AUC students to jail, some said that is starting to change. “It was a wake up call for a lot of us,” Al Sayed said. “Even their closest friends thought they would go in and come out. But they didn’t… The fact that they got five years was a slap in the face for us.”
Unrest has hit other private universities. In late April, students at the British University in Egypt, a Cairo-based private institution, protested the sentencing of five of their classmates to five years in jail. The students, also handed hefty fines, were found guilty on charges of illegal protest, belonging to a terrorist group, blocking roads and attempted murder of a police officer, a student told Ahram Online, an English-language news website. But critics say such charges are often politicized as authorities seek to quell dissent.
Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said it is not surprising that both private and public institutions are seeing increasing levels of engagement and protests. Universities in Egypt have long been hotbeds of activism, she said.
“The problem is that when the government response to youth activism is through arrests and crackdowns, this will only make it more attractive for students to become more sympathetic toward certain Islamist groups because these groups are very dominant and they are perceived as victims of government repression,” she said. “It’s likely that if this kind of scenario continues, universities will see more unrest on campuses, which will result in further government crackdowns, which will only fuel more violence and unrest.”
Over the past few weeks, AUC students held demonstrations to denounce the sentences handed down to El Boghdady and Ghandour, and to demand that the university intervene in the case and allow the students to study while in prison.
It is unclear if the two students will be allowed to continue their education in jail or if the university is taking action. The university’s president, Lisa Anderson, said the institution does not comment on legal cases out of respect for individual privacy and as a matter of policy. “Although the University always seeks to ensure the safety and well-being of community members, it cannot intervene in personal legal cases, no matter the specific nationality or other circumstance of those involved, or take up legal questions that do not involve University business,” she wrote in a letter to the university community.
But administrators let students hold a forum last week in a main public space to discuss the students’ sentences. “Moving on from this forum, I want to get in contact with private universities, get them to know about the cause, and unite altogether for the cause of getting the detained students out regardless of political views,” said Ahmed Samir, an advocate and friend of the sentenced AUC students. “I think if we hold a public demand that students get released, as well as all those detained unjustly get released, I don’t think anyone would dispute that.”
Samir said he thinks a protest movement at private universities is growing. “But I always ask myself the question: Are (protests) effective? Are they getting the students out? That’s the point of this whole thing,” he said.