SHAFAQNA – At Cairo University’s campus, new, black steel walls have gone up. A private security firm has put up surveillance cameras. Guards have bomb-detection devices. Just outside, heavily armed riot police have permanent positions. Summer holidays end this weekend, and universities across Egypt are preparing for the return of students with a heavy, pre-emptive security clampdown. The aim is to prevent a resurgence of protests by supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president who was removed by the military just over a year ago.
Last school year, universities became the focus of pro-Morsi protests and campuses turned to war zones as police tried to suppress them. But the clampdown now is going beyond supporters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists and threatens to silence all political activism in the universities. It reflects what rights activists have warned is happening nationwide under President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi: Dissent in general is being snuffed out in the name of fighting Islamists.
University presidents have been given new, unquestioned powers to expel students or fire professors suspected of involvement in protests or any political activities, without independent review of the cases.
In one of his first moves after his inauguration in June, al-Sissi halted the election of university presidents by professors and deans, a practice begun after the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Instead, he reinstated the Mubarak-era practice by which the head of state chooses the heads of universities, a sign of how the post is seen as crucial for keeping control.
Moreover, the government in 2013 ended a traditional ban on security forces entering university campuses, allowing police to move in if the university president invites them, or simply if they feel it is necessary. Elections for student unions, a major venue for campus political activity, have been called off for the time being.
Last week, al-Sissi gave a speech in Cairo University, warning students “not to get involved with malignant activists”. He accused an “unpatriotic group” – referring to the Brotherhood – of “seeking to sabotage the nation and using the youth to achieve its goals”.
Egypt’s universities have historically been an incubator for political activism of all stripes, from hard-line Islamists to secular leftists.
Last year, campuses were a vital lifeline for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood after security forces shattered the group and its Islamist allies with a nationwide crackdown that killed hundreds of protesters and arrested more than 20 000. Protests were all but crushed in the streets, but they continued almost daily at universities.
The campus protests frequently turned to clashes as police battled with the Islamists. At least 16 students were killed in campus protests, according to the watchdog group Student Watch.
More than 1 000 students were arrested, according to security officials. Many of those have since received heavy prison sentences in mass trials.
More than 500 students were expelled or suspended, almost all of them from the Al-Azhar chain of universities, which have large concentrations of Islamist students and saw the heaviest protests.
The protests eased when universities let out in June. Authorities delayed the start of this university school year for nearly two weeks to put security measures in place. With classes starting up nationwide on Saturday – a school day here – pro-Morsi activists vow a new wave of protests.
Mahmoud al-Azhari, a student protest leader at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, said the clampdown will only increase student anger.
“After all the killings, the detentions and the expulsions, they [students] will not retreat from pushing for the liberation of their universities,” he said.