CAIRO—Ahmed Salama, a 22-year-old physical-education student, recently moved into a dormitory at El-Arish University, in Egypt’s troubled North Sinai province. The move was a practical one—to avoid being stopped at security checkpoints by government forces trying to quell a years-long campaign of militant attacks in the province.
Salama was detained at security checkpoints several times last year as he commuted to the university from his home in Bir al-Abed, about 60 miles away. (Bir al-Abed was the site last November of the deadliest attack yet in the province, when more than 300 people were killed in the bombing of a mosque.)
“News of murder is everywhere and there is slaughter in every street,” Salama said in a phone call. The campus is gripped by tension, he said, and students can’t maintain regular studies.
Salama is one of thousands of university students who are struggling to complete their studies in North Sinai, amid militant attacks and extensive military operations. After years of marginalization under the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the province has had to cope with heavy security measures since Egypt’s government announced a war on the Islamist insurgency in July 2013.
The Egyptian army’s efforts to set up a buffer zone on the province’s border with the Gaza Strip have caused serious hardship for many in the area. The army has demolished homes and other buildings in several towns in the buffer zone, and many displaced residents have fled to the city of El-Arish, the province’s capital, about 30 miles from the border. El-Arish University, a public institution with more than 5,000 students, is one of two universities in North Sinai. The other is Sinai University, a private institution with a total of 7,000 students. Both have campuses in El-Arish.
“There are severe restrictions on male students at security checkpoints, delaying the arrival of many to universities,” said Salama. “So, some students prefer to drop out of university to avoid security stops on the road.”
Others, like Salama, have chosen to reside at university dormitories, spending one or two days a week with their families. But that option does not seem to be available to everyone.
Yasmin Alaa, 22, studies pharmacy at Sinai University, which costs her about 40,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,300) a year. The tuition increases by 10 percent each year, Alaa said.
Alaa has to rent a flat with three of her colleagues for 1800 Egyptian pounds ($100) a month in el-Msa’id, a district on the outskirts of El-Arish that has received many of the displaced people from the border towns.
“It is not easy for our parents to pay these expenses, as many economic activities in the province have stopped,” she said.
What makes things worse, Alaa said, are the frequent disruptions in basic services. The water supply, Internet and mobile-phone services are interrupted on a daily basis, sometimes from the early morning hours until 5 p.m. when the army and police forces are carrying out operations against suspected terrorist groups.
“I have a constant fear of living in this city, where we hear the sound of gunfire every day. I have lost many of my female colleagues in terrorist attacks and many of my male colleagues have been arrested,” she said. “Studying here is impossible.”
In January of last year, Sinai University’s main building, where Alaa studies, suffered major damage when a bomb exploded at a checkpoint in front of the university. The building’s glass facade, some lecture halls, and laboratories of the schools of pharmacy and dentistry were destroyed, but no students or staff members were injured.
As a result of the attack, Alaa and some 90 other students from the departments whose facilities were damaged had to transfer temporarily to the university’s branch in Ismailia or to universities in the Egyptian capital. Late last year, the students returned to their building in El-Arish after reconstruction work was finished.
“We are keen to complete the regular educational process and help Sinai students despite the tense situation and challenges,” said Osama Rateb, Sinai University’s vice president, in a phone call.
Friday is usually a weekend day at Egyptian universities, but Sinai University does not take that day off, Rateb said. Instead, it uses Fridays to provide lectures or exams that had to be canceled during the week, and to keep the educational program moving forward on schedule.
“We seek to support our students by all means,” including financial assistance and psychological counseling, Rateb said. Providing a psychological counselor is especially important, he said, “as many clashes and violent attacks occur in the streets and in front of people’s eyes.”
El-Arish University is also taking steps to help its students stay enrolled amid the violence and disruption caused by the attacks and the grave security situation, said its president, Habash Al-Nadi.
“We are seeking to overcome these difficulties and support students to complete their university studies through a series of measures,” he said.
Those measures, he said, include allowing students from North Sinai to enroll in all Egyptian universities, regardless of the geographical criterion; additionally El-Arish has cut the cost of staying in its dorms to 165 Egyptian pounds (just under $10) a month instead of the fee of 350 Egyptian pounds ($20) set by the Supreme Council of Universities.
Forced to Flee
Last February, dozens of Coptic Christian students left El-Arish University as their families fled North Sinai. Islamist gunmen have stepped up their attacks on Copts in the past year, killing them and burning their homes and property.
Mina Yousef, a 22-year-old student and one of those whose families have left the province, now studies at a private university in Cairo. His sister, who was a science student at El-Arish University, moved to Port Said University.
El-Arish University has transferred some students to its branch in the city of Ismailia and others to private universities in Cairo, said Yousef. “It also is bringing a professor weekly to support students learning at the university’s facilities in El-Qantara, on the western side of the Suez Canal.”
Still, a third-year media student who lives in Ismailia and asked that her name not be used complained of the absence of professors. “They told us that it was difficult to come every week, and that this costs the university a lot of money,” she said. “They asked us to go back to the campus in El-Arish, which is quite difficult today.”
Students who move to another university must start over with first-year studies, according to the law of private universities, the student said. “We are trying to find a way to ask the ministry of higher education to help us,” she said.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent advocacy and research group based in Cairo, has criticized the way universities and government ministries are dealing with the issues faced by Coptic students. The organization said in a statement last fall that Sinai University had asked about 80 displaced Christian students “to return to their studies in El-Arish, to take up residence in ordinary student housing and to pay tuition fees beyond their financial means, with no regard to the life-threatening risks they face there.”
It added that these students had been unable to arrange transfers to universities outside of North Sinai province.
Secrecy and Suspicion
But even students who do manage to leave the province still face difficulties, including the suspicion and scrutiny that they encounter in other areas of Egypt, where information about what is happening in North Sinai is hard to come by. The government restricts news coverage of its activities in North Sinai, and advocacy groups say it pressures media outlets to censor critical voices.
“The security situation is so complicated,” said an engineering student from the border town of Rafah who now studies at Zagazig University, north of Cairo, and asked that his name not be used. The secrecy about what is happening in El-Arish put people like him “in a difficult situation,” the student said, “because we are from a city where terrorist attacks take place. We often have to not disclose our hometown to avoid suspicion or caution in dealing with us.”
So far, there are no statistics on the number of university students or staff members who have been killed or injured in attacks in the cities of North Sinai.
The government’s restrictions on reporting from the area and other security measures “block documenting what is going on there and the magnitude of damage affecting people and students,” said Mohammed Naji, a researcher at the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression.
Naji, who is with the independent Academic Freedom and Student Rights program, tried to work on a report on the difficulties facing university students in North Sinai, but he said he was “unable to communicate with sufficient sources to document the situation and was unable to travel to Sinai.”
The engineering student from Rafah who declined to be named said he does not believe he will return to his city after graduation, as the tense security situation continues amid lack of jobs or major projects inside Sinai.
“There is no employment,” he said in his local dialect. “You know how badly unemployment can affect the youth.”