On Sunday clashes erupted in Assiut University between protesting students belonging to Students Against the Coup (SAC) and security forces. According to SAC ’spokesman Yossof Moslem, Central Security Forces used tear gas and birdshots to disperse the protest, leading to the injury of more than 50 students including a student who lost an eye.
The scene of security forces storming into university campuses, arresting and injuring students, has turned repetitive as violence in Egyptian universities has escalated since the beginning of the school year in 2013. Protests take place almost on a daily basis by university students from different political factions both on and off campus. The situation reached its peak at Al-Azhar University during the beginning of midyear examinations when Students Against the Coup announced their boycott of the exams.
To be able to understand the situation in universities, an introduction to the effective political players in the university scene is necessary.
Egypt’s Student Union (ESU)
Independent students were able to win the elections against their Muslim Brotherhood counterparts in 2013, a significant achievement given that the Brotherhood has won parliamentary, presidential, and syndicate elections. Independent students backed current ESU President Mohamed Badran to power.
Badran’s performance has been seen by different student groups, including liberal factions, to be in line with the post 3 July government, but does not represent the students any more.
Badran was criticised for missing the preliminary voting regarding the No Military Trials for Civilians article in the constitutional assembly, for answering falsely during a televised interview about the situation in universities, and for organising a campaign to support the constitution even before the draft was finalised.
Badran founded in December a campaign under the name of The Future of a Nation, calling Egyptians to vote Yes to the referendum on the draft of the constitution, and has been receiving support from different public figures including the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb.
Students Against the Coup (SAC)
The group is considered to be the student arm of the Anti-Coup Alliance. It was formed as a reaction to what it calls the “3 July coup”. The group comprises members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathisers who call themselves “Rabaaweya”.
Daily News Egypt previously talked to a group of Rabaaweya who were taking part in a protest organised by SAC in Ain Shams University; they have mentioned that they do not know the organisers of the protests nor their routes and that they only interact with the group virtually through its Facebook page.
The group claims to be peaceful and has notoriously distanced itself from violence in universities, blaming “hired thugs and security forces” for acts of vandalism.
The SAC’s largest campaign was its boycott of exams, in which students began refusing to take exams on 28 December 2013, and was only successful in universities with widely held support for the Brotherhood and their sympathisers. Despite its efforts, the examination process continued normally after the situation was forcibly contained during the following week.
The Revolutionary Front students
A coalition was created among student groups that are subordinates to the political factions taking part in the Front. It is composed of a motley group of student movements: the Revolutionary Socialists, 6 April Youth, Misr Al-Qawia students, and the Manifesto group, along with some student unions that disagree with the ESU board and president. These students unions include those of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science and of the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University and others.
The group has been acting as a student arm for the Revolutionary Front that was created in September 2013. The group’s stances and activities are in coordination with the Front’s positions and events that criticises both the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military.
El-Midan Student Group
El-Midan Student Group is another name for the student office of Al-Dostour Party. The student group has marked its independence from the political office of the party through its political stances that opposed the official party. The first of such incidences took place in 2012 when the student body criticised a number of figures participating in the National Salvation Front of which Al-Dostour Party is part, and a second when the party supported the authorisation of the police and military in July 2013 to combat “terrorism”, a position that the student office clearly deposed. El-Midan Student Group is considered to be the most structured and politicised student organisation on the scene, with a democratic central office that considers the different opinions of the members of the group. This is reflected in the group’s statement about the constitution.
Coherence among the key players
Several attempts were made by the different political groups to call for a United Student Movement, but have all failed, leading to ongoing conflicts between the groups.
All the key players have officially blamed Students Against the Coup for the violence taking place in universities, although they do not approve of the use of force against them, except for the ESU who sided with security forces and finds it essential to contain the situation as soon as possible.
Popular student demands
President of El-Midan Student Group Mohamed Sarhan along with the presidents of the student unions of the universities of Helwan, Benha and Ain Shams attended a meeting in December with representatives from the Ministries of Defence and Interior along with the presidency.
The students’ demands included the release of all detained students to allow them to take their exams; retreat of security forces from campuses; abolishment of the cabinet’s decision allowing security forces to enter university campuses upon the approval of the university president; creating fact-finding committees in which students would participate to investigate the violations that took place in the universities; and the resignation of the ministers of interior and higher education.
Although the demands communicated have the consent of all the key players (except for ESU), the meeting was heavily criticised by the different factions and was considered as “a betrayal to the student movement principles”.
Mohamed Abdel Salam, researcher at the Student Observatory of the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), is closely monitoring the situation in universities, spotting the violations taking place with the help of teams of student volunteers, and had previously proposed a solution for the situation.
Abdel Salam suggested that either a dialogue take place between the student factions and the university administration — especially at Al-Azhar University — or the security apparatus would loosen its grip on university students.