CAIRO — On Dec. 14, student elections in Egyptian public universities raised several questions about the future of the relationship between public university students and the ruling regime.
The student elections, which had not been held the past two years in Egypt, attracted a low turnout both in terms of candidates and voters. The majority of seats were either won by acclamation due to the lack of sufficient candidates or appointed by the university administration due to the complete absence of candidates.
Each faculty will now have a student council of 14 members, including a president and a vice president. On Dec. 14, which was the final day of the elections, the elected student councils elected a union representing all university students. This union is also composed of 14 members, including a president and a vice president.
Observers believe that the regulations that were approved by the government a week before the elections was a decisive factor that allowed the regime to control the student movements within universities. Since the outbreak of the January 25 Revolution in 2011, students have been giving the successive authorities a headache, these observers argued.
The Egyptian Cabinet on Nov. 23 issued new regulations banning partisan slogans or political seminars in universities for the first time since the establishment of universities in the early 20th century.
Hani al-Husseini, a member of the March 9 Movement for the Independence of Universities and a professor at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor that the way the elections were held was similar to what took place before the January revolution when the Egyptian regime kept a tight grip on student movements.
Husseini said that the student regulations currently set by the government are similar to the 2007 regulations, which was in force under the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak and allowed him to hold a tight grip on student movements.
Following the January 25 Revolution, students were calling for the 2007 student regulations to be dropped. In 2013, when Mohammed Morsi was elected president after the revolution, new regulations were issued to grant students greater autonomy. But in December 2015, after Morsi's ouster, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government canceled the regulations and then-Minister of Higher Education Ashraf al-Shehhi dissolved the Union of Egyptian Students under the pretext of invalid elections. When the 2016 student elections were due, the government tried to return to Mubarak's regulations but failed.
Minister of Higher Education Khalid Abdul Ghaffar, in a Dec. 16 press statement, attributed the low turnout of voters to the fact that student elections had not been held for years in Egypt. He also said that religious and political authorities are controlling the electoral scene.
The minister added, however, that high standards of discipline were ensured during the elections, and he pledged to provide support to student councils by meeting with and heeding the demands of university presidents.
Husseini said that students were skeptical about the government's desire to hold elections, and most of them are new students who are unaware of the way elections are normally held.
He added that the electoral preparations took place at a very rapid pace. The government surprised the universities and only gave them a week to start preparing for the elections, which coincided with exams.
On Nov. 29, student unions (whose mandate was over) issued a joint statement along with other movements criticizing the student elections' timetable and describing them as a “fast train through which the government aims to restore the atmosphere that was prevailing before the January revolution.”
A university source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that university administrations have established student groups, such as the “For Egypt” group, and pushed them into the student council elections to ensure the university’s control over students.
The source said that the universities exploited the students' candidacy conditions set by the regulations, as they excluded many students under the pretext that they did not meet the required conditions or under the pretext of “security concerns.”
Mohammad Naji, in charge of the student freedoms dossier at the nongovernmental organization Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, told Al-Monitor that following the June 30, 2013, protests, the current regime worked on eliminating the student movements after it saw that the Muslim Brotherhood resorted to universities to cause headaches for the regime given the group’s elimination from the political scene.
Naji said the current regime, which emerged after the June 2013 protests, took several legislative steps in this regard. Chief among these is that university presidents were given the authority to dismiss students and professors.
Saied Sadiq, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, told Al-Monitor that the university elections reflected an “authoritarian system” applied across all institutions and sectors in Egypt. Also, he said, there is a state of political indifference and ignorance plaguing Egyptian society, and this has led students to defer to the measures taken by the regime.
Sadiq said students are no longer able to confront or oppose the regime for fear of being expelled from university or ending up in prison.
Husseini said that successive governments have controlled student movements and pointed out that students have stopped playing a role in the political movement and the political scene as they did several years ago, given the security grip imposed on them.