Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Solving the riddle

Why have students at Egypt’s public universities been resorting to violence to make their voices heard, asks Gehad Hussein

Al-Ahram Weekly

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” American author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson seems to have a lot of fans in Egypt, especially when talking about violence, at least sarcastically speaking.

Rarely a day now passes without the occurrence of some sort of clash or aggressive incident between two parties. The most frequent and violent conflicts these days have been found between students at public universities in different governorates and the security forces.

In recent months and ever since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, demonstrations have been taking place not only in the streets, but also on university campuses across Egypt. The security guards of these facilities have sometimes not been able to contain the protests, resulting in the interference of the state security forces and the wounding or even killing of students.

Hotspots of violence today include Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Mansoura University and Zagazig University. Although accounts differ as to who started the violence and aggression, it has become a fact that the country’s universities are not always now safe havens for students and even those not affiliated with political parties are exposed to risks. The death of a sixth-year medical student at Al-Azhar University, shot dead in the dorms, was but one vivid example.

The demands of the protesting students are mainly for a reversal of the power shift that took place in June and July 2013, or at least that is what their actions might suggest. Professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo Said Sadek said that the aim of the young demonstrators was also to attract international media coverage, especially that of Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, to show that the Muslim Brotherhood is not dead as a political player and to externalise the internal tensions within the organisation, helping it to avoid implosion after Morsi’s fall.

However, violence needs two parties, and other sociologists say that these young people have many discontents and violence is an act of desperation by which they hope to be heard. “When people feel ignored through socially appropriate channels they may turn to violence as an expression of their frustration,” Anne Justus, a professor of psychology at the AUC, suggests.

Sociologist Nehal Al-Alfi said that “students have been denied the right to political activities in universities. We kept these young people silent for so long, telling them they had no right to talk about politics and they had no idea what they were talking about. There need to be healthy outlets for political views — something that was disregarded even after the revolution — and thus when students really showed their political affiliations, they inevitably started to clash.”

Omar Shoeib, a freshman at Al-Azhar University, said that the violence had kicked off in mid-September, when students started demonstrating on University grounds. The security forces were deployed outside the University, and some of the demonstrators left the campus to provoke them by chanting slogans insulting the Ministry of Interior. The reaction came in the form of tear gas, and some say bullets. Then the security forces entered the university campus and started dispersing the crowds and clashes erupted.

“They were just peaceful demonstrations, until the tear gas was fired. Then everything became violent and has remained that way ever since,” Shoeib said. “The reaction of the security forces was aggressive, surely exaggerated in comparison to the kind of damage that had been caused by the students.”

However, once it has started the cycle of violence is a vicious one. “It is a natural and human reaction to respond ‘violently’ to violence — and it often spurs even more anger and aggression. This is not a healthy way to being heard, but it is effective,” Justus explained. “When violence erupts at universities, it is a red flag that the youth feel misunderstood, misrepresented, unheard and repressed. In itself this is cause for great alarm as they are the next generation and the future leaders of the country.”

The situation has now developed to the extent that interim Prime Minister Hazem Al-Beblawi has even suggested the return of the National University Guards, an arm of the Ministry of Interior inside the universities which was removed after the 25 January Revolution due to reports that it had actively interfered in administrative affairs. The Guards were then replaced by unarmed security forces that were not trained to deal with the eruption of demonstrations or violence.

In Al-Alfi’s view, the current university security system is obsolete and is just as helpless as the students. But were the National University Guards to be returned to campuses action would need to be taken to ensure that they were appropriately trained to deal less aggressively with the mounting protests.

“When I try to talk to my friends who join these protests, they tell me that they have opinions that they are free to express peacefully. When I hint that there are people with them in the demonstrations that are not as peaceful as they are, they become very stubborn,” Shoeib explained, adding that 90 per cent of his classes had been cancelled since the problems between the students and the security forces started because the professors were afraid of lecturing while clashes were happening outside.

“Even if the demonstrating students have legitimate political demands, they should still be keen on restoring the academic process at the university and not interrupting the system. Many students have resorted to studying at home and only coming to the campus in order to take the exams,” Shoeib added.

There are 1.6 million students in the country’s public universities, compared to 60,000 in the private ones. These students mainly come from humble or rural backgrounds and often have not scored well in their high school exams, according to Sadek. Unlike at the public universities, the majority of the student body at the private academic institutions do not suffer from economic problems. Also, private universities have strict requirements and collect heavy tuition fees, so students cannot afford to skip classes or be dismissed and administrators have more power to punish them.

In addition, most students at private universities do not feel attracted to Islamism, and a more Westernised and secular attitude dominates campuses. Sadek added that the majority of students at the private universities were interested in university politics, but not necessarily in national politics.

Besides its being easier to organise protests at the public universities, Justus related the cause to the size of the student bodies. “People often feel less fear and are more ready to protest when there are more people present. They feel safety in numbers,” she said, a point affirmed by Shoeib. “At Al-Azhar University, students find it easier to collect for heated demonstrations,” he said. Al-Azhar University has over 300,000 students.

It is also easy to enter public university grounds as a non-student, and thus demonstrations have been accused of being infiltrated by outsiders. “Even I enter my university without showing my ID or any paper that proves I belong there,” Shoeib explained. “During the clashes, the Al-Jazeera reporter and cameraman were on-campus filming what was going one. This proves that anyone can get in easily if they want to do so.”

“The best thing would be to prevent violence altogether and have rational discussions amongst opposition groups instead. However, this would require organisation and planning and it is difficult to maintain when tempers are flared, people feel threatened, and are desperate,” Justus said. In Al-Alfi’s view, “public universities do not even give a proper education to begin with, so how will they increase standards of political dialogue?”

Sadek said that the overwhelming majority of students do not participate in the demonstrations, despite the major noise factor that these protests have been causing. “Fewer than 3,000 to 4,000 students from Al-Azhar University have been participating in political protests due to the fact that they were either members of the Muslim Brotherhood or had family links to members who had been jailed,” he said.

“I believe that there should not be any demonstrations on university grounds, but at the same time the security forces should not be so violent in their reactions,” Shoeib said. “Words and slogans do not kill, but bullets do. What upsets me most is how some people react to the news of students dying by saying ‘they can go to hell’ instead of ‘may God forgive them’. During and after the 25 January Revolution, we all used to cherish Egyptian blood and take care of each other. But this has changed today.”

Justus also refers to the Magna Charta Universitatum, which was signed by six universities in Egypt, including Ain Shams. “Traditionally, universities are supposed to be safe places in which people are encouraged to think new ideas, experiment, and question everything — a basic principle of the Magna Charta Universitatum.”

“In an ideal world, all thoughts and ideas would be allowed expression in a university without violence or the withdrawal of education. However, when students resort to violence to be heard, this puts universities in a precarious position,” and violence does not serve anyone, she said.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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