From anti-war to civil rights movements, Tianenmen to Tahrir, student activism has been, and continues to be, a cornerstone of many resistance movements around the world. In times of cynicism, stagnation, and fear, there is something about the fervor, idealism, and conviction of youth, coupled with the university as an institution deeply embedded and complicit in, yet in many ways divorced from, state actions, that drives movements forward. Fueled by a belief that the status quo is no longer an option, students and young people are the life force of a revolution. And they are an authoritarian regime’s worst nightmare.
It is no wonder, then, that the Egyptian government has gone to such lengths to quell student dissent and gain greater control over university campuses. Most recently, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi issued a presidential decree to regulate Al-Azhar, Egypt’s oldest university and one of the world’s primary centers of Islamic education. The decree allows for the expulsion of staff and students accused of involvement in violent acts. Since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi last summer, hundreds of Al-Azhar students have been charged with committing violence.
Under the guise of “restoring stability” to the institution, the new law criminalizes actions that “obstruct the educational process or undermines [sic] the status of Al-Azhar,” including protests and rioting. The decree is only the latest in a systematic effort to curb criticism of the regime on university campuses. In a particularly telling move, back in June, one of Sisi’s first acts as president was to grant himself the power to directly appoint university presidents. This Mubarak-era policy had been changed after the January 25 revolution in 2011 to allow professors and deans to elect their own leadership.
In his latest article, “Egypt’s 1984,” journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous writes that “university presidents have since been given new powers to expel students or fire professors suspected of ‘crimes that disturb the educational process’ without independent review.” In addition to installing surveillance cameras and metal detectors, the Sisi administration has gone so far as to contract private security firm Falcon to enforce security on university campuses. According to human rights lawyer, Ahmed Ezzat, the move has no legal basis. “Private security personnel do not have the judicial enforcement authority of prosecutors, officers, officials or public employees, who are authorized by the minister of justice,” Ezzat told Mada Masr. “If a private security officer searched the car of a student or professor, it would be considered a violation of privacy.”
In the past year, over 1000 students have been detained, imprisoned, or expelled. Already, this academic year has brought its first fatality – that of Omar al-Sharif, a student at Alexandria University who was killed by security officials. When Sharif died, the school year had barely begun, after delays of almost two weeks in order to install and implement new security measures. Responding to the violence, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab stated in al-Ahram that, “universities are a place for learning, not throwing Molotov cocktails…We are trying to control the leakage of weapons onto campuses and impose discipline to protect students and the learning processes.”
If the country’s recent history is any indication, this escalating “discipline” will unfortunately cost Egypt many more young lives, but will fail in defeating those who remain.