Students Against the Coup (SAC) has come to represent one of the most controversial and active student groups since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. The group has been heavily criticised by other student movements and is being accused by different student organisations of bearing responsibility for the escalation of violence in Egyptian universities.
The Ministry of Interior classifies the group as Muslim Brotherhood students and have notoriously said that they are part of a plot designed by the Brotherhood office in the United Kingdom to provoke security forces into escalating violence and defaming the interim government.
One of the spokesmen of the movement, Youssof Salhen, 21, is a senior student of Islamic Studies in Al-Azhar University. Salhen participated in the 25 January Revolution, Mohamed Mahmoud clashes and the Rabaa sit-in. He considers himself an independent Islamist, interested in revolutionary matters and an affiliate of a number of student bodies.
DNE: What is Student Against the Coup, and how did it start?
YS: It is a revolutionary student movement that was launched during the Rabaa sit-in after the students protesting in Rabaa set a meeting and decided to initiate a movement with the purpose of organising protests by the beginning of the school year.
The group was successful in generating support in every Egyptian university by that time. The group coordinates with other groups, such as the 18 movement [which had also initiated during the Rabaa sit-in] along with other groups in different universities. In Al-Azhar University alone, there are about seven different groups against the coup that we coordinate with. Yet Students Against the Coup remains the largest one.
From the beginning of the school year up to this day, we have organised peaceful protests in different universities, and we have coordinated protests between students from different universities.
DNE: Could you explain the structure of your group and how it is being run?
YS: We have a General Steering Committee that manages the group nationwide. This committee is responsible for setting the general strategies. Each university has its own Steering Committee and a spokesman. The only visible side of the group’s steering committees is the spokesmen, while the rest are unannounced for security reasons.
The movement is not based on memberships, but on participation. The Steering Committee organises events, and any student is allowed to participate, which would make all those participating in our protests part of the Students Against the Coup.
The movement does not have any political or partisan affiliations and is run entirely by students.
DNE: What is the relationship between SAC, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Anti Coup Alliance?
YS: Since the military coup, Egyptians have been protesting in the streets against the military rule. The Brotherhood is only a minority among the protesters, who come from different backgrounds, religions and political affiliations.
The students belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood are an integral part of the movement, because, of course, the Brotherhood is against the coup and is pro-democracy and pro-legitimacy. Therefore, they are definitely involved with the movement by steering committees through their participation in them; however, they are by no means controlling it. On the contrary: they are only a minority.
As for our relationship with the Anti Coup Alliance, we only coordinate with them since we agree on the ends. Our students can join their protests on Fridays since it is a day off, but our statements are entirely independent from the Alliance; all our statements discuss student matters. The alliance does not have any authority over the opinions or stances of SAC, nor does it affect its steering committees.
DNE: What are your comments regarding the allegation that SAC has an “Islamist leaning”?
YS: One of SAC’s main blocks is in Al-Azhar University, which is one of the largest and most prominent schools for Sunni Islamic teachings; thus, the general tendency of the students is Islamic. Al-Azhar Students have been studying Sharia law since childhood. Therefore, they believe in the Islamic dream: that Islam is connected to politics.
Besides Al-Azhar University, SAC is in each and every university in Egypt, including private universities, and they do not have an Islamic affiliation; rather, they have a liberal or secular one.
DNE: In official SAC statements and chants, there have always been references to Morsi, legitimacy, calling for an Islamist state, and even some Muslim Brotherhood anthems. Would you not describe that as Islamist-affiliated?
YS: In the beginning, we agreed in the steering committee and with separate universities that we want to unite all students against military rule. We decided not to call for [the return of] Morsi or legitimacy; however, the students participating in our protests are those who chant and support such causes and we cannot stop them from expressing their opinions.
DNE: What are your comments regarding the accusation that SAC is responsible for inciting violence and its escalation on campus with the interior ministry, in addition to blocking roads?
YS: We are being accused of destroying public property, but I assure you that we would not do that, as this is the students’ property. We organise peaceful protests, although we are always being harassed by university administrations and security forces; that was obvious when security forces stormed in to Al-Azhar University on the second day of the school year.
I believe that these allegations are false, as they convict the victim and leave out the instigators [security forces], who have committed murder on several university campuses, not to mention that armed thugs cooperate with security forces against the students. The media helps in this defamation campaign against the students, which has notoriously accused the protesting students of hurting their fellow students, which can’t be further from the truth.
DNE: What are your comments regarding the SAC protest that targeted the Giza Security Directorate?
YS: Our protesters are peaceful, even if they fight back against security forces. They only use rocks in the face of live ammunition, birdshots and tear gas. Besides, as I have mentioned before, the movement is based on participation and you can’t control all those who are participating.
We fight back against the interior ministry, as they are our enemy and being peaceful does not mean that I would allow them to massacre us in the streets. We believe that stripping the oppressor of his means of oppression is a non-violent act. If in certain cases the police vehicles are torched, this is only stripping the oppressors of their means of oppression. We have not killed, kidnapped nor hurt anyone. This is only an escalation to protect ourselves. If we were a terrorist organisation, we would have wielded fire arms, but we did not do that, as this is not part of our philosophy. We oppose violence, and the act of disarming oppressors and stripping them of their tools is an act of peaceful escalation.
As for blocking the roads, this is an escalation that we do on a very small scale. It is limited for a maximum of five minutes, and if there are any urgent cases, like an ambulance, we instantly unblock the road. The purpose of blocking the road is to send a message to show the people that we are present and that we are protesting.
I would like to condemn those who have double standards with regards to the idea of blocking roads. 25 January and the 18 days of the revolution were based on blocking roads, not to mention that security forces are practically occupying the country. They block the roads almost every Friday. If blocking the road is an actual problem, I think the people should be brave enough and go ask the authorities to open all the roads they block.
DNE: Could you tell us the reason behind the tensions between residents of the Sixth Settlement and Al-Azhar students?
YS: There are no tensions between the residents and students; the problem is with the hired thugs that the interior ministry had recruited to be able to control university students. Not to mention that the media is convincing the people that the students are the reason behind all their troubles. Those thugs have entered the university, used birdshot against the students and have helped security forces to arrest them. We do not accuse the residents of Nasr City of anything; we know that these are the thugs of the Ministry of Interior.
DNE: What is SAC’s escalation plan entail? And what are your plans for 25 January?
YS: We have started to go outside universities in the first term and we are planning to do that more often in the second term. The squares are not far from us, we will be heading there. We can’t announce more than that for security reasons. As for the coming 25 January, we will join the massive protests that will be taking place on that day, since that will fall during the mid-year vacation.
DNE: Will you be coordinating with student groups from the liberal camp?
YS: We try to coordinate with students from different camps. We have already coordinated before with Misr Al-Qawia students and other groups, and we always welcome any group that reaches out to us and seeks coordination.
DNE: Would SAC forgo the demand for Morsi’s return for the sake of gaining more support?
YS: As I told you before, our movement began during the Rabaa sit-in. We will not compromise. Our groups demand justice, freedom and retribution. The only means to reach these goals is through the democratically elected president. No one can predict the course of events of the revolution; we only do our best and have faith.
DNE: Does the group consider itself successful?
YS: Sometimes we make mistakes and sometimes we do things right. Our examination boycott campaign was successful in the beginning, but then, the exams continued normally. Personally, I voted against this decision, but the majority voted in its favour. The idea behind such a measure is to send a message, not to ruin anyone’s future. I personally took my exams. SAC did not prevent anyone from taking the exams, but there was a strike that eventually faded away.