Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

A cautious return

School and university students are resuming their studies at the beginning of the new academic year amid parental concerns of a possible lack of security, writes Reem Leila

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Summer is over along with Ramadan and the spirit of the Eid, and now it is time for the school bells to start ringing again. More than 45,000 schools and 17 universities will kick off their work in two days’ time, raising anxiety for many families. The changes to the curricula, a possible ongoing lack of security and the work of some universities’ security services have all given rise to concerns. 

Over recent weeks academic experts along with university professors have been warning about the instability that might be seen at the country’s universities. For at least the past two years there have been concerns about activities on campus, and worries are likely to escalate once the academic year begins, with some academics warning of possible violence.

Awatef Abdel-Rahman, a professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Mass Communication, said that since the security forces had been substituted for by civilian security services that had no experience of ensuring security among university students, “the gates of the universities have been opened to all and to any activity, including drugs and harassment. We are seeing things that were never seen in the past,” she said, “though judicial control might help put things back in order.”

At the same time, Abdel-Rahman warned against the misuse of judicial powers, as students were unlikely to accept any ban on their freedom to express their opinions or to practice politics within university premises. A court order had removed Ministry of Interior security personnel from the country’s universities in 2008, annulling a 1980 decree stipulating that the universities should be protected by security forces affiliated to the Ministry of Interior, she said.

At the beginning of this month, Minister of Justice Adel Abdel-Hamid decided to grant the power of judicial seizure to civil security men, allowing them to act against students if need be. The decision stirred up controversy even though it had been called for by some university presidents. Abdel-Hamid issued the order because of what he called the “lack of security” on some university campuses, giving security personnel the right to file reports against students who violated regulations or caused trouble and leading to their referral to the public prosecution services for investigation.

An NGO, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), then issued a statement objecting to Abdel-Hamid’s decree, saying that it did not provide an efficient solution to the lack of security that might be the case at some universities. According to the AFTE, the decision should be annulled because it increased concerns about security solutions being used against students on university premises, these being unwise due to the high degree of polarisation among students and the possibility that the security services or university administration could take the side of one group of students against another.

“The decision jeopardises the independence of the universities. It states that Article 317 of the law governing the universities on university security is under the auspices of university presidents. The justice minister’s decision to grant judicial powers to university security services will simply make the latter an agency operating under the auspices of the prosecutor-general,” read a statement.

Dalia Hegazi, a university professor and herself the mother of two students, raised another point when she said that students affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, or even students not so affiliated, could cause disturbances on university campuses in protest at the new rules and this could expose them to violence from the civil security services. This could be the case even in the event of peaceful protests, she said. “Many professors and student union heads disagree about the new rules, as they fear they may mean the reintroduction of practices associated with the former regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak,” she said.

The only way to solve the problem of security on university campuses, according to Omar Mohamed, the head of the student union at the Faculty of Pharmacy at Cairo University, would be to increase the number of security personnel and to properly train them. “The role of university security should be restricted to securing students against direct threats to them. It should not intervene in student activities,” he said.

The student union at Ain Shams University in Cairo issued a statement two weeks ago expressing its rejection of the minister’s decision. It said that the decision aimed to intimidate students under the guise of ensuring security on university campuses. In the statement, the union said that the number of security staff should be increased and a new security company contracted to provide services, but that new powers should not be given to the security services.

However, Abdel-Hakim Khalil, president of Tanta University, said that the justice minister’s decision to provide extra powers to security personnel was to ensure the students’ welfare. “The decision aims to prevent the possible sabotage of institutions and assaults on university faculty and students. Moreover, not all security personnel will be granted these extra powers,” he said. He denied that there had been any intention to bring back State Security personnel to university campuses.

Such developments have left many parents puzzled about the experiences of their children when the latter resume the new academic year this month. More than 18 million students will commence their studies, after almost four months spent away. This is the first new academic year to start after the 30 June Revolution, which toppled the Muslim Brotherhood regime headed by former president Mohamed Morsi.

This year, at least 150 new schools will join the existing 45,773 in a bid to reduce classroom numbers and improve educational facilities. The new academic year for state schools will start as scheduled on 21 September, whereas international schools have already started, on 14 September, despite rumours that the beginning of the new academic year might be postponed until the country’s security status was stabilised. The school year lasts for 201 days, 101 in the first term and 100 in the second. Mid-year holidays will start on 25 January and end on 2 February, and the school year will end on 5 June.

“Everyone is worried. We don’t know what will happen to our children. Will they be safe going to school? Will the police and armed forces be able to protect our children and their schools,” asked Nora Mohamed, the mother of two children, expressing the fears of many parents in response to reports about the protests still taking place in many parts of the country. “I read in the newspapers that Muslim Brotherhood supporters were planning to return to their sit-ins at Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Nahda Square, for example,” Mohamed said.

Minister of Education Mahmoud Abul-Nasr denied the rumours about a possible postponement of the new academic year, saying that it would commence on schedule. He said that parents’ fears were groundless, since the ministry had been coordinating with the ministries of the interior and defence to ensure that there were sufficient personnel to secure the country’s schools against any disturbances. “Security measures in the schools will be extremely tight in order to guarantee the safety of the students,” Abul-Nasr confirmed.

The minister said that students in state schools would be exempted from all fees this year, notably for books, in order to help alleviate the financial burden on parents due to the recession in the country. “This exemption does not include private or international schools. It will cost the government more than LE750 million, and 15 million students out of 18 million will benefit from it. It comes in addition to increasing the percentage of children joining kindergarten by 10 per cent this year,” Abul-Nasr said.

He denied rumours claiming that the ministry would close down schools run by the Muslim Brotherhood. “These schools are experimental ones, and they absorb many students. They play an important role in decreasing class sizes, and there is no reason why we would wish to close them. They are all under the umbrella of the Ministry of Education,” he said.

Earlier, the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) issued a report in April about possible unrest at the country’s universities. According to the report, there had been a poor security presence on campuses during earlier disturbances, which had led to violence among both university students and outsiders. The NCHR called for the introduction of a draft law regarding peaceful demonstrations that would criminalise the sabotage of public property and the carrying of weapons during demonstrations.

It said that security at university entry points should be tightened and that security within campuses should be strictly implemented in order to forestall any disturbances. The report found that in the past there had sometimes been inappropriate handling of angry students, thus leading to clashes and the siege of university administration buildings. “The police have been found to have used excessive force and verbal abuse against the protesters,” the report stated.

Despite the measures being taken by the authorities, some parents are still against the normal resumption of the school year, seeing the situation as still too dangerous. Hoda Suleiman, the parent of one child whose school is in the Cairo district of Mohandessin, said that it was not safe for children to go back to school in an unsafe atmosphere. “The district where the school of my son is located is not safe at all, as it lies in the middle of the ongoing incidents. As a parent, if I can’t guarantee the safety of my child it’s a huge worry and responsibility, and no one can bear it, even if that person were the minister himself,” she said.

There are concerns that schools could be targeted by insurrectionists or rioters. “It is hard for us as parents to comprehend what it is like for students and teachers to turn up to class not knowing whether they are going to be attacked or not,” said Ahmed Harhash, an ophthalmologist and the father of two school students. “Once a pattern of attacks is established, there could be a multiplier effect, spread by the fear of more to come. Parents will be afraid to send their children to school, teachers will be afraid to go to work, and the educational system will grind to a halt,” Harhash said.

However, other parents have refused to allow present problems to interfere with their plans or their children’s education. “Everyone is scared. We don’t know what will happen to our children when we put them on the bus or let them out of our sight,” said Rabab Al-Moqadem, the mother of three children, who nevertheless thought schools should start to work as usual.

Shahinaz Al-Desouki, a deputy to the minister of education, said that the minister would be conducting visits to schools all over the country in order to monitor the situation on the ground. “The minister could visit any school at any time, so it is best to be prepared,” she said. Instructions had been issued to schools to lock their gates as soon as students step inside. Teachers would not be allowed to go home until after the departure of the last student. Students would remain inside their schools until buses arrived to pick them up safely. Schools would not allow students to wait for their parents outside school premises, she said.

Al-Desouki said that meetings had been held with senior education officials across the country to check on preparations for the new academic year and to ensure that textbooks had been delivered on time. “Reforming Egypt’s educational system is at the top of the ministry’s agenda. It intends to remove all superfluous material as well as topics related to the Muslim Brotherhood from school textbooks,” she said.

Lists of the removed sections of the curricula have been sent to the country’s schools. The religion, Arabic and science curricula were being revised by specialists in each field. “The school textbooks will reflect the changes by the beginning of the 2013-2014 academic year. It has been difficult to print new ones for the time being, given the costs and the shortage of time,” Al-Desouki said.

In time, all the textbooks used in Egypt’s school system will be reviewed and amended according to academic principles and with a view to student welfare. The curricula reforms will not be restricted to government schools, Al-Desouki added, but would also extend to language and international schools.

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