CAIRO: The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) warned in a statement issued this week that the freedom of student union activity has been undermined by changes to the internal statute governing student union elections.
Amendments were made to the 1979 internal statute last year.
“The statute has put in place complicated and restrictive conditions for nomination to student union elections, the Egyptian rights group says in its statement.
“It gives faculty administrations a legal [authority] to not only monitor student union activity but indeed take decisions for it and draw up its agenda.
Students and university teaching staff have consistently criticized interference by security bodies in all areas of university life, including student elections.
“The 1979 statute led to the retrogradation of the role of student unions and was a principal tool used to fragment politically-seasoned movements and leaders, AFTE says.
“The issuing or amendment of legislation governing student activity remains one of the most powerful tools consistently used by the Egyptian government to contain the size and influence of the student movement.
The 2007 amendments ban student groups formed on a religious or political basis and stipulate that seminars and conferences may only be convened with the approval of the faculty’s deputy dean.
In addition, a ‘consultant’ drawn from the university teaching staff must be appointed to every student union committee.
The internal statute also now requires that students wishing to stand in elections provide evidence of previous student activity.
Under the statute however, activity pursued outside the framework of the official student union is considered invalid.
“How can first year students, and students constantly removed from candidate lists by the university administration provide evidence of previous student activity? student Ahmed El-Sayyed asked.
El-Sayyed, a final year law student at Cairo University and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has stood for election to the student union four times. Each time, his name has been removed from the candidates list.
The officially-banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood forms the largest political bloc on student campuses, and each year student union elections form the battleground for clashes between MB students and the police.
El-Sayyed, however, says that his name was removed from the list despite the fact that he stood as an independent candidate.
“I was standing as an independent candidate, and my membership of the MB is not widely known, El-Sayyed told Daily News Egypt.
“I was removed from the list because I am not approved by state security bodies within Cairo University, El-Sayyed explained.
“For the past seven years MB candidates were removed from candidate lists while representatives of other political currents such as the Wafd, and socialists, were allowed to remain.
“Despite their removal, MB students still won control of some student committees,
“The regime responded by putting in place a state security-approved candidate list. Any student outside this list – whether Muslim, Christian, independent or Socialist – was removed.
Under university student union rules, at least 50 percent of the student body must turn out to vote.
El-Sayyed says that widespread apathy amongst students, coupled with skepticism about the probity of student union elections, means that this percentage is rarely reached.
As a result, the faculty dean has the right to appoint students to faculty unions, while the general university union is made up of delegates from individual faculty unions.
El-Sayyed says that the students appointed are invariably drawn from a list approved by security bodies.
El-Sayyed is also critical of a new condition introduced by the 2007 amendment, requiring that potential candidates pay their university fees before they can stand.
“Fees in some faculties are as much as LE 700 – LE 800. In the light of the difficult economic situation in Egypt, plus the costs associated with Ramadan and the start of the new academic year, many students have been unable to pay these fees. How can you give the student the right to stand for election and then cripple his ability to do so? he asked.
The MB withdrew from this year’s student union elections after all the group nominees were removed from candidate lists.
This, El-Sayyed says, despite the fact that they offered to only field candidates in one committee – the technical committee – in order to demonstrate that they do not wish to dominate the student union..
On Monday – when the name of the student union secretary general was announced – MB students organized a ‘wake’ for the student union.
Exclusion from the official student union has led MB student members, as well as students from other political currents not sanctioned by university administrations to form shadow organizations.
Last year students from various political currents formed the “Free Union, headed by a MB member with a socialist deputy head.
Such activity is clearly not sanctioned by university administrations and state security bodies, however, leading to harassment of students who take part in non-approved political activity – in the form of investigations and suspensions.
Students blacklisted by their university’s administration and its security bodies are therefore denied all outlets for political expression.
El-Sayyed nonetheless remains defiant.
“As a student I want to be involved in political activity, he said.
“If you won’t let me work within legitimate channels, then let me pursue my activities outside these channels without harassment. But I am denied the right to do either.
“I want to play a role with students, and they won’t stop me pursuing this role. I’ll be active even in the face of security harassment.