Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Tense start to the year

The new academic year started this week with violent clashes at many of the country’s universities, writes Reem Leila

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Thirty-four students were suspended and 18 others arrested on the second day of the new academic year which kicked off on 11 October. Eleven of the arrested students belong to Al-Azhar University, while the remaining seven are from Ain Shams University, both in Cairo.

Several protests erupted at six state universities against the Falcon private security company that had been hired to provide security on campuses. The protesting students, some of whom belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood group, chanted slogans against the government and the army.

The students wanted to continue with their marches outside the universities’ premises, but could not as they were faced by the heavy presence of the police forces.

At Al-Azhar University, angry students gathered to protest within the university campus and damaged three electronic security gates after clashing with personnel from the Falcon private security company. The police then stormed the university’s campus in the east district of Nasr City and fired tear-gas to disperse the demonstration.

Al-Azhar students condemned the presence of the private security company on the campus, saying that the clashes had taken place as a result of overcrowding at the new electronic gates and “humiliating” security checks. Hundreds of students had missed their lectures due to the slow process of checking students at the electronic gates, they said.

“The clashes took place in a moment of anger,” said Amr Sameh, a student at the university’s commerce faculty. 

Abdel-Hai Azab, president of Al-Azhar University, said that dozens of students had been charged and would face investigation. “Others will be arrested after looking at tapes from the cameras at the university’s gates. An investigation will take place to identify the remaining participants,” Azab said, adding that a “tiny minority” of students had tried to hinder the educational process but had failed to do so.

“The university ensures the safety of all students. It aims to raise the students’ awareness and sense of belonging to the country,” Azab added.

Political analyst Hassan Nafaa criticised the violence at the country’s universities, especially Al-Azhar. “What is going on is ridiculous, and no one is benefiting from it. We are all losing,” Nafaa said. In order to end the state of tension among the students, there should be more dialogue between the protesting students and the government, he added.

University professors should also act as mediators between the government and the students, with the latter being given a larger margin of freedom to express themselves. The government should also understand the students’ needs and allow them to peacefully protest and express their opinions freely, he said.

“Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. They must be properly trained in politics so that the country can best benefit from their capabilities,” Nafaa added.

A similar scenario took place at Cairo University, when the security forces blocked the roads leading to the campus and closed the main entrances after students threw Molotov cocktails at Falcon security personnel.

The security forces then stormed onto the campus to disperse students who were chanting slogans against military rule and the recent arrests of their colleagues.

Mohsen Ragheb, a student, told the Weekly that no students had been arrested. “The police ended the protests without throwing tear-gas bombs at the students or firing any ammunition. Two armoured vehicles entered the university’s campus at the request of its president Gaber Nassar in order to disperse the students,” he commented.

However, all the university entrances were closed to prevent the situation from escalating.

Nassar later said that he had asked the police to enter the campus as “thugs” had destroyed property belonging to the security company. “There is an official protocol which permits the police to enter the university in cases of emergency,” he said.

At Ain Shams University, fireworks were fired as part of a student demonstration numbering some 200 people, of which seven were arrested.

Further protests took place at Helwan and Alexandria universities demanding the release of detained students, while fireworks were fired inside university premises.

Awatef Abdel-Rahman, a professor at the Faculty of Mass Communication in Cairo, said that the presence of riot police around the campuses was a severe violation of academic freedom, protected by the constitution.

“Such acts will not stop the students’ anger. The students have proved that oppression and security measures will not stop them. Escalation is bound to take place if the university does not allow the students to exercise their freedom of expression,” Abdel-Rahman said.

Violence at the country’s universities has been identified as a serious security problem. According to Abdel-Rahman, the government has shown itself to be unable to contain the anger of the students. “The university students are a serious threat to the government, raising questions as to why the government is unable to conduct a dialogue with the students,” she said.

Employees of the Falcon company retreated from their posts at the three main universities, and police officers dressed in civilian clothes spread among the students.

Female security personnel affiliated to the Falcon company checked female students. “Our mission is limited to securing the university gates and inspecting people entering the campus to ensure that individuals without university IDs do not enter,” said Soad Mohamed, a female Falcon security guard.

“We also check female veiled students to match them with their university ID photo,” she said. According to Mohamed, none of the Falcon security personnel is allowed to interfere in the demonstrations. “We do not have the means to defend ourselves. Our role at the university is limited to securing the campus gates and monitoring student entry,” she said.

Managing Director of Falcon Sherif Khaled said that the company had 12,000 employees, including 580 who were employed to work with women. Falcon controls 56 per cent of the private security market in Egypt. “The company, which is responsible for providing security personnel for 15 state universities, withdrew its personnel from Al-Azhar, Cairo and Ain Shams universities after clashes broke out,” Khaled said.

The withdrawal came after reports claimed a number of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated students had stormed the universities with sticks and weapons, he added.

During the past academic year, the country’s state universities were the scene of frequent clashes between the police and students. Minister of Higher Education Sayed Abdel-Khaleq said at a conference at Al-Menoufiya University on 12 October that all the students taking part in the protests would be expelled from their universities. 

“A university is a place for education. We will not allow any group of students to hinder the educational process this year. Firm measures have been taken against those who attempt to riot or commit violent acts within university premises,” Abdel-Khaleq said.

On 13 October, Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim visited both Al-Azhar and Cairo universities to check on the readiness of police personnel. Ibrahim announced in a press conference that riot police would be stationed inside Al-Azhar University’s campus and that the police would secure Cairo University’s gates in cooperation with the private security company.

“The security forces are present whether at the university’s gates or inside the university premises. The situation is calm and under control,” Ibrahim said.

The violence reflects instability among the country’s decision-makers, Dahlia Hegazi, a professor at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, said, adding that the clashes between the students and the security personnel had not been surprising.

“The society is suffering from a state of laxity. The university is a small community which reflects the outside society, understandable since it is part-and-parcel of the outside community as well,” Hegazi said.

Although university administrations have been adopting comprehensive security systems, such as recruiting professional guards along with guard dogs and installing electronic gates, “resorts to violence will continue as long as there is political instability,” she added.

Hegazi said that if the government continued to prevent students from expressing themselves politically on university premises, a “huge bomb of anger” could eventually explode.

Mohamed Abul-Ghar, a member of the Faculty of Medicine and of the 9 March Movement for the Independence of the Universities, condemned what he called the “restrictive regulations against university students”.

These included “surrounding campuses with heavily equipped policemen, aiming to spread misfeeling between students and professors.”

The country’s university professors held a silent protest on 13 October against new amendments to the law governing university affairs which were recently rejected by the State Council. “The judiciary has done its job, and we now demand that the government abandon its attempts to trample on our freedoms,” Abul-Ghar said.

The State Council dismissed a proposed amendment to the university law on 11 October under which university presidents would have the power to fire faculty and staff members. “University professors are to be fired only via the decisions of a disciplinary committee,” read the ruling.

The amendments had ignored the universities’ internal processes and the need for a disciplinary committee to investigate any university professor suspected of breaking the law.  This could include inciting violence, participating in protests which hinder the educational process and bringing weapons and explosives onto campuses.

The revoked amendments had included vague articles giving university presidents extensive powers, Ahmed Zayed, a Cairo University professor, said. “The amendments included crimes already penalised by the criminal law, so why were they to be included under the university law,” he asked.

Abul-Ghar said that the government must now issue a statement announcing it will not amend the university law. The silent demonstration, planned by the 9 March Movement, was approved by the president of Cairo University.

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