Egypt's universities brimming with students turned activists

Pakinam Amer
5 Min Read

Muslim Brotherhood’s student members face uphill battle

CAIRO: Salah is a clean-shaven young man dressed in worn-out jeans and a casual beige jacket. His grades imply that he is an above average achiever. He studies trade at Cairo University, regularly pays school fees and dreams of running for student union elections.

In so many ways, he is a typical student. But yet again, he is not. Salah is an active member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and this makes all the difference.

I cannot benefit from the years I spend in university as a student because of my affiliation with the Brotherhood, said Salah, who refused to disclose his last name in fear of being arrested by security intelligence officers.

In public universities, Islamic activists – particularly those affiliated with the Brotherhood – are banned from founding or participating in activities, from student elections and school trips. The government, which has uncontested control over state universities, usually crosses out names of islamist candidates from election lists, in many cases refusing to even accept their applications.

This is usually the best period in a person s life: university years. But me and my colleagues from the Brotherhood spend it protesting, shouting and struggling for our simplest rights.

According to Salah, the islamist students are avoided like the plague by the administration. During confrontations, the university officials, the dean included, step back and let the security police clamp down upon the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated students.

Well, then again the dean of students is as pressured as anyone else. Security police force him to take a passive stand, added Salah, in what appeared to be sympathy for the university official.

Only last week, hundreds of students from across universities in Cairo and Helwan demonstrated against what they deemed blatant security interference in school affairs. Union elections, for yet another year, were marred by violence, deprivation and allegations of fraud and vote rigging.

In Cairo University, the protests were the worst. Clashes were bloody; some students ended up in hospital beds with fractured knees or broken arms after the Special Security Forces had beaten them up with their truncheons.

In one incident the heavily armed riot police, who usually cordon off universities during heavy protests, held students on the Cairo University campus until 10 p.m. Faculty members had to negotiate with the dean, who in turn had to sweet talk security police in order to set the students free and allow them to go to their homes.

Osama El-Shaeir, eyewitness and a student who was denied candidacy, said that he was arrested during a recent union-related protest. I don t understand why this is happening to me, though. And it makes me sad to see my rights taken away as such.

I have not failed a course during my study. I am respected by my fellow students, added El-Shaeir.

El-Shaeir was held in custody for hours. But others have faced worse; one group of 29 Helwan University students is still being held in custody since their arrest on Monday.

The students were arrested in a pre-dawn raid on their houses for charges of belonging to a banned group, and for staging unauthorized elections. The students were trying to form a parallel union after their applications for the regular elections were rejected.

Other Helwan University students threatened to go on a hunger strike if their fellows were not immediately released. In short, union elections became a mini-war between students on one side and government-controlled entities on another.

The scenario was repeated in Ein Shams, where students appointed to the union engaged in a hand-fight with islamists who had aspired to candidacy.

Arguably, the students are fighting their own battles for democracy.

But still the battles have not been without a price, at least according to these two stricken students.

Clutching this freedom out of their hands gives us back our dignity, it is true, said El-Shaeir, his voice suddenly breaking. But it s never the same.

We lose a lot. Valuable time. People get arrested and our friends get dismissed, added an equally upset Salah. We pay much to get our simplest rights. But hopefully the next generations will rise on our shoulders.

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