CAIRO — Anger is increasing inside a number of Egyptian universities in Cairo and across the country’s governorates over security policies and the storming of college campuses by police. The unrest led to the death of an engineering student Nov. 28; the government insists that the school year be completed and the educational process be controlled through security measures to quell student protests.
The university riots were at the top of the cabinet’s priorities last week, following the disruption of studies on a number of campuses. Students announced open-ended sit-ins that would continue until their demands, including the prosecution of all individuals whose actions resulted in the death of the engineering student, are met. This would entail the ouster of the interior minister and the dismissal of Minister for Higher Education Hussam Issa for his role in allowing security forces to enter the university campus. The students also demand that the security forces vacate the perimeter of campuses, the detained students be released and all wounded students be treated with state funds.
Prime Minister Hazem el-Biblawi met with members of the Supreme Council of Universities on Dec. 4 and subsequently issued a strongly worded statement — a copy of which was obtained by Al-Monitor — that read: “The government will not allow the disruption of studies. University campuses are places of learning. Political action must remain bound by the regulations that safeguard the educational process. The state will not hesitate to adopt punitive measures going all the way to the dismissal from university of any students in violation.”
A source at the Supreme Council of Universities told Al-Monitor, “The council’s consultations with the government are very complex. This is in light of the insistence of a number of university chancellors that they act independently of the state, in order to appease students, while refraining from provoking them by preventing security forces from entering campuses again. The government, on the other hand, insists on adopting deterrent measures that would put an end to the ongoing protests in universities, which would further complicate, instead of pacify, matters in the foreseeable future.
“The cabinet’s decision to allow police entry into university campuses is still being rejected by a number of university presidents. Negotiations are ongoing. The government is under pressure to rescind that order and remove control of universities from the hands of security forces.”
During the council's weekly meeting on Dec. 3, Interior Minister Maj.-Gen. Mohamed Ibrahim submitted a report about the security situation in Egyptian universities, and the manner by which security forces were dealing with student protests. He said that the protests crossed all acceptable boundaries, disrupted public life, led to assaults on passersby and broke the law on organizing demonstrations that the government passed last month.
“We do not use live rounds, nor do we aim weapons at students. But students must understand that what is occurring is a plot against the June 30 Revolution, and a conspiracy in favor of the [Muslim] Brotherhood’s return to the political arena,” Ibrahim said in a news conference held Dec. 3 at the Council of Ministers, following the death of the engineering student at Cairo University.
A security source in charge of the university dossier at the Interior Ministry told Al-Monitor that the government’s plan to secure universities cannot be implemented without the participation of police and security forces, because civilian security services inside universities were unable to guarantee the security of campuses under the current conditions of daily escalating protests.
“The plan adopted by the Interior Ministry and approved by the government relies primarily on the continued presence of police forces on the perimeter of main universities, namely Cairo, Ain Shams and Al-Azhar. It also relies on the sustained introduction of new security reinforcements to prevent protests from spilling out of campuses,” the source added.
“If student protests do go beyond university campuses, security forces will deal with them according to the provisions of the law on organizing demonstrations. They will be met with water cannon first, followed by tear gas, then percussion grenades,” the source explained. He said that since the law was passed, police have not received any applications by students to demonstrate.
At Al-Azhar University, the scene of other confrontations between security forces and students, Al-Monitor witnessed clashes that continued for 12 hours throughout the night of Dec. 8, during which police forces stormed the dorms, firing tear gas and birdshot. In response, students burned car tires to reduce the impact of the tear gas, and threw rocks to push security forces away from the dorms.
“The actions of students here cannot be considered peaceful demonstrations,” Maj.-Gen. Magdi Abbas, the director of security at Al-Azhar University, told Al-Monitor.
“A calm reaction to what the protesting students [are doing] is impossible, in light of their closing down streets and assaulting their colleagues and faculty members. We will take all appropriate legal measures against them, starting with their irrevocable expulsion from the university,” he added.
Abbas said that security forces have identified “all the rioting students," and said, "We know that they are hired activists who did not come here to study. Whoever espouses violence shall be met by us with violence.”
The cabinet’s security policies against the student protests, however, were not widely accepted by the universities. Cairo University issued a statement condemning the storming of its campus by police forces that led to the death of student Mohamed Reda.
For the first time ever, the army had to intervene to separate the students and security forces, after the military spokesman, Staff Col. Ahmad Ali, invited a group from Cairo University and Al-Azhar’s student unions to meet and to examine ways by which the current crisis can be overcome, as well as to discuss student demands and convey them to the government.
A member of the March 9 Movement for the Independence of Universities, Laila Suef, complained to Al-Monitor of what she sees as the government’s insistence on “unacceptably meddling in university affairs.”
“Student protests were peaceful and did not disrupt studies, but the police’s violent intervention led to the deterioration of the situation. The government has no right to interfere in university affairs, and the police’s decision to enter campuses is a violation of the universities’ independence. Furthermore, the continued presence of security forces on the perimeter of campuses will exacerbate tensions and add to friction with the students,” she said.
Tensions are rising in universities as a result of the government’s continued utilization of security apparatuses in dealing with the students. This course of action has been flatly denounced by both students and faculty, who consider the practice worse than that adopted by the former regime of deposed President Hosni Mubarak. All the while, political solutions to contain student anger remain elusive.
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