CAIRO — There has been a tug-of-war between Egyptian students and state authorities as the government attempts to control student actions within the framework of tightening the noose on all state institutions. Authorities believe that student movements and ongoing protests on university campuses threaten the state’s power.
Despite the blockades and clampdowns by successive Egyptian regimes to contain student movements, students have played a part in every political event since the 1920s and are a key factor in shaping the Egyptian political scene since Jan. 25, 2011.
The Egyptian state attempted to maintain its power over students, whether through Muslim Brotherhood’s advocates who refused to let the movement be pushed aside from its leading role, or the supporters of the civilian movement who objected to the military’s intervention in the political process and in the security forces, to face the escalating violence during the 2013-14 school year.
In the wake of the military intervention on July 3, 2013, and President Mohammed Morsi’s deposition, the Egyptian authorities took several measures with the onset of the current school year to maintain security on university campuses and to put an end to acts of violence and protests. The Ministry of Higher Education’s contracting with Falcon Group International on behalf of several Egyptian universities was at the forefront of these measures. The company was in charge of providing security during President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s presidential campaign for the 2014 elections, which secured several Egyptian universities with a sum exceeding 84 million Egyptian pounds (roughly $11 million), according to a copy of the contract between the company and the ministry that was published by the Egyptian media.
Several political currents, students and faculty were angered by the government’s use of a specialized security company to maintain the universities’ security, as they considered this a violation of privacy. Although assistant professor of political science at Cairo University and the American University of Cairo, Riham Bahi, did not object to the presence of a specialized security company to protect universities from vandalism and violence instead of the police, she told Al-Monitor that she disapproved of Falcon’s method of searching students’ property, calling it a breach of privacy.
“I have my doubts regarding Falcon’s competence in securing universities due to its reputation, relations and political affiliations in providing security for Sisi’s electoral campaign centers,” Bahi said.
Bahi believes the government resorted to Falcon due to “the increase in vandalism against university buildings, attacks on faculty staff and the disruption of the educational process during the past school year.” As a result, a private security company had to be hired to secure the universities, especially those that witnessed chaos on campus the previous academic year, such as Al-Azhar and Cairo University, and a number of regional universities such as Alexandria and Mansoura universities.
But since the beginning of this academic year, violent clashes have continued with students objecting to a private security company being deployed at 12 universities, according to the contract concluded between the company and the Ministry of Education. These include the universities of Al-Azhar, Ein Shams, Alexandria, Mina, Zagazis, Assiut, Mansoura, Helwan, Tanta, Beni Sweif and Damanhour.
The clashes reached their peak when several members of Falcon fled and the company’s equipment installed on the university’s gates were destroyed on Oct. 12. This pushed the dean of Beni Sweif University, Amin Lotfi, to issue a statement published in Al-Shourouk Dec. 5, saying that Falcon has failed to control the security situation in universities. The university denied this statement on Dec. 7.
Indeed, Falcon’s services has not prevented protests throughout the school year. A democracy index report released by Demometer shows a rise in protests at Egyptian universities during October and November. Al-Azhar University was at the forefront of these universities, as 52 protests were staged on its different campuses in various provinces. Alexandria University followed with 33 protests, while Cairo University and Helwan University witnessed 26 protests each. Ein Shams University came in last with 16 protests.
Accusations also claimed that the company is insulting students by violating their personal freedom. The head of Falcon Group’s press bureau, Walid Fouad, responded to these accusations and told Al-Monitor, “The company only protects university doors and fences and organizes the students’ access through electronic gates to make sure that they do not have anything that might threaten the university’s security and stability, like explosives and fireworks.”
He added, “Electronic devices do the job rather than personal search methods. The company does not deal with protests or sit-ins on university campuses or outside. … The company does not directly handle violations either. In case there are devices that can threaten the educational process in a student’s bag, like sticks and explosives, the company reports the student to the administrative security, which deals with the violator. The company is only responsible for tracking violations."
Fouad does not consider this a breach of privacy, saying, “This technique is used in large malls and airports, and people openly accept it.”
When asked whether the company has succeeded in maintaining security and stability on university campuses where it operates, he said, “Falcon has succeeded in its task, when comparing 2014 to 2013. The 2014 school year did not witness events similar to those that occurred in Al-Azhar and universities in Cairo, such as protests, thefts and fires in faculties and cars, not to mention insulting faculty members and [actions that resulted in the] suspension of classes.”
“The company is helping the police to face protests that might break out on campuses. It is also helping university administrations contact the police to prevent Molotov cocktails and fireworks on campus, as students on campus used them to attack policemen, wounding students and policemen alike,” he said.
He added, “The company does not have the authority to contact the police, but the university does.”
While the universities’ reliance on a private security company did not prevent student protests, the company has succeeded in preventing the entry of dangerous materials. No explosions and acts of violence took place this year, unlike last year. The state’s firm security grip, which has targeted pro-Muslim Brotherhood actors who encouraged the use of violence on university campuses, also helped deter violence on university campuses. But on campus protests persist and continue to provide a challenge for university administrators, the state and Falcon.