The purpose of a code of student discipline at a liberal university should be to support a stable social environment that is suitable for learning and research.
At Egyptian universities, disciplinary systems are nowhere near achieving this goal. In reality, disciplinary measures are often imposed arbitrarily on students, especially the political activists among them. In March, for example, there were cases in which the disciplinary system was used extremely harshly against actions that did not violate laws or regulations, giving rise to the suspicion that this system is really there to punish students according to university leaders’ personal convictions.
For example, Alexandria University’s faculty of science decided to suspend a female student for two months on charges of “eating and drinking” in a class. The question I would ask is: Does eating some food harm the educational process somehow?
And was that student suspended because she harmed the educational process or because she behaved in a manner the educator disliked? In making the judgment that this behavior demanded punishment, the disciplinary committee handed out a harsh punishment in the form of a two-month suspension, when there were other options available.
The laws regulating Egypt’s universities include far lighter punishments, such as notice, warning, depriving the student of certain student services, or suspending him or her from attending classes for a month.
Also in March, the same disciplinary council at Alexandria University’s faculty of science suspended another student for two months for not wearing his lab coat in a practical session. While it is understandable to refuse to let the student attend that class because he did not have the lab coat—which could have potentially exposed him to dangerous chemicals—does suspending him for two months protect the educational process against a particular danger?
In another example, Ain Shams University’s faculty of engineering decided to cancel “Fun Day” parties under the pretext that they violate the faculty’s general rules and do not follow university standards, and that some students had assaulted faculty members at such parties. It decided to punish anyone who contravened this decision with permanent dismissal.
Eventually the faculty revised its decision after the student union officially apologized on behalf of students for what had happened in previous years. However, the university still set conditions for holding such parties that anger many of the faculty’s students.
Suez University’s faculty of petroleum and mining engineering is another example of an institution using excessively harsh discipline against its students. The faculty investigated five students for using a lift that the administration had allocated for faculty members’ use only—a ruling that the students only became aware of at the disciplinary session. It should be noted that the faculty’s building is on five floors, and nobody understands why a faculty would punish students who used a lift to get to their lectures
It seems that the practice of restricting students’ freedoms is not limited to just a few university leaders. Some members of parliament have gotten involved too. Most notable among them, perhaps, was Dr. Amna Nasir—a professor at Cairo University as well as a member of parliament—who asked Dr. Gaber Nassar, the president of Cairo University, to prevent his students from wearing “ripped jeans.” Nassar refused, saying that intervention in students’ freedom to dress as they wish would require legislation.
Then the head of parliament’s Constitutional and Legislative Committee intervened saying that the matter did not require legislation, but was an administrative decision, as if the problem lay in the mechanism for this prohibition, not in the prohibition itself.
Freedom of dress is a personal freedom that cannot be governed or restricted either by a law or an administrative decision: Egypt’s Constitution guarantees the personal freedoms of all its citizens. According to Article 54 of the Constitution, “Personal freedom is a natural right, which is safeguarded and cannot be infringed upon.” Article 99 states: “Any assault on the personal freedoms or sanctity of the life of citizens, along with other general rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and the law, is a crime with no statute of limitations for both civil and criminal proceedings. The injured party may file a criminal suit directly. The state guarantees just compensation for those who have been assaulted.”
Al-Azhar University was also guilty of discriminatory attitudes when the dean of the faculty of media expelled a number of female students from a training workshop at the men’s faculty. He said, “The faculty has held many workshops before and no female student attended them, so why did they attend this workshop in particular?” He also said that female students attending a workshop at the men’s faculty could cause serious problems, not least the possibility of claims that male students had harassed them. The dean thinks that concealing female students will prevent such problems and blames the female students for the possibility of their being harassed.
In a country suffering from harsh economic and social conditions that leave a large segment of its youth in a state of despair and anger, Egypt’s universities and higher education officials should realize that their restrictions—that relate to basic personal freedoms and some very normal behavior—will produce more frustration, hatred and potential extremism. If universities really want to be free and independent, they should immediately call for a change to this unfair use of the disciplinary system. University leaders and those concerned with university affairs should also put aside the old patriarchal culture and realize that university students are not children who need to be disciplined, but youths from a completely different generation—a generation that needs more freedom and openness.
For their part, the student movement should try to put forward a more sophisticated and diverse agenda that would integrate students into the educational management process through elected unions, and defend students’ rights, freedoms and other values against the patriarchal culture that prevails among university leaders and higher education officials in Egypt in general.
Mahmoud Shalabi is a researcher at the Education and Student Program at the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, an Egyptian non-governmental legal center.