The first week of the Egyptian academic year was turbulent.
University gates seemed to become places where Egyptian social discontent and the government fear of chaos were both spilling out.
Anti-regime students organized boisterous protests. Egypt’s notoriously arrest-happy security apparatus was in full swing, detaining dozens of students. Dozens more students were injured in clashes with security forces. One Alexandria University student remains in critical condition after receiving birdshot pellets in the neck during conflicts with police on campus. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, at the end of the week, put total arrests of students at 186.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, called the mass arrests of students “a pre-emptive strike on free speech and free assembly.”
“Universities should be safe zones for the exchange of ideas, including political debates,” he said in a statement.
The writing was on the wall for conflict. The government seemed to be bracing for it, delaying the start of the academic year for security preparations, trying to freeze political expression on campus and arresting students to try to pre-empt protests. Egyptian student activism has been a bedrock of political and social movements and taking executive action against the mere existence of some such groups on campus seemed like a sure-fire recipe for confrontation. Police were supposed to stay off-campus, but to be a strong presence, patrolling and dealing with lawbreakers.
The arrests of students often took place in pre-dawn raids on the houses of the students with a disproportionate show of force by uniformed and non-uniformed police, apparently a scare tactic. The police often left in their wake upset and puzzled family members, Human Rights Watch interviews found. By the third day of classes the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression counted 127 arrested or detained students, some of whom were released. The charges included distributing leaflets, inciting violence and promoting a terrorist organization—the Muslim Brotherhood.
Falcon, a security company in charge of guarding the entrances and exits of most of the larger institutions, was searching the bags of everyone going in and out. That created a potential problem, as Cairo alone has three campuses with more than 250,000 students. “On Saturday, the day when universities are least busy, the average individual entering the university (from student gates) waited 30 minutes to enter,” said Hani Elhusseini, a Cairo University lecturer.
For Cairo University, Sunday was the most chaotic day. Clashes reportedly broke out, eventually lead to Falcon closing down the university gates and to police shooting tear gas. While some political demonstrations were planned for the day, the clashes also seemed to be instigated by the atmosphere. “Most students enter from the one gate that is closest to the underground station,” said Maha ElWazir, a lecturer in the faculty of mass communications. “The crowding at the gate was scary. On top of that, the sheer amount of police forces outside campus grounds, along with the private security increased tension.”
ElWazir was on campus preparing for lectures a week earlier. Within that week, she said, the university gates and entrances became “suddenly very fortified. It doesn’t look like a university or a safe haven anymore.”
Falcon and its role at security gates has been a contentious subject. Human rights lawyer, Ahmed Ezzat, said that private security forces don’t have the judicial authority to conduct personal searches in an interview with Mada Masr, an independent publication. Not everyone shares that negative view. Falcon forces have done their job and “stayed out of the university, while keeping illegal substances out,” said Ahmed Khalaf, the head of the student union for the faculty of economics and political science. “At least, Falcon’s existence means that we are keeping the Interior Ministry (police) off campuses.”
Students Against the Coup, which sprang from the Muslim Brotherhood but now says it is independent, managed to pull off protests on campuses, which led to on-campus intervention of security forces. By the second day of classes police forces had already raided Cairo and Al Azhar universities in pursuit of the demonstrators and made arrests. “We were not aiming to be disruptive. But security forces had turned the university into a prison. They even lined some of the fences with barbed wire,” said Youssof Salhen, the general spokesperson for Students Against the Coup.
Salhen, an Al Azhar student, said some students were upset by petty actions of the police, such as confiscating deodorants and colognes. But he also said some of the protesting students were throwing stones and setting fireworks in the direction of police.
Tawfiq Nur-Eldin, the vice-president of Al Azhar University said that the students arrested were caught organizing political protests and “vandalizing some of the metal detectors and security appliances at the gates.”
“Some of my colleagues are being held in detention centers now for no reason other than carrying a banner of our student group,” said Ahmed Islam, a third-year engineering student at Alexandria University and a member of the Masr Elqaweya student group, which carries the same name as the moderate Islamist political party. Alexandria University, like most other public universities in Egypt, has banned student groups who are allied to a political party.
Alexandria University saw some of the more confrontational clashes in Egypt’s universities. More than 70 arrests were made so far over the week in that university alone. Multiple amateur videos show police forces entering the campus and making arrests, even within lecture halls. The Muslim Brotherhood “had a demonstration near a major street (on Tuesday). There was nothing to it. Suddenly I heard explosive sounds. Everyone was running quickly to take cover in the university buildings, police armored vehicles followed on campus,” said Michael Azmy, a student in the faculty of engineering. The university was completely evacuated at one point. “I don’t see any justification for the way police acted within the university,” said Azmy, who was also critical of the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to hold protests.
Other public universities in Egypt saw similarly bumpy starts to their academic year, but were able to achieve a degree of normalcy. “We already started one week late so I decided to jump straight into the material to go through as much material as possible, for the sake of the students,” said El-Wazir. But, El-Wazir, is apprehensive about the university’s insistence on security as a solution its problems. “So far I’ve only seen increased and enhanced security, arbitrary expulsion of students and other solutions that will not solve the problem in the long run.”
Students like Ahmed Khalaf, who support some of the added security measures but reject police intervention, would also like to see more outreach to students and hopes the first day of classes at Cairo University doesn’t reflect on the rest of the year. “Last year was the worst. There was effectively no academia… The second term was all protests and tear gas,” he said.