Saturday October 11 signalled the start of the new academic year in Egyptian universities, delayed this year by the authorities from September to mid-October to allow them time to prepare their security forces for the expected demonstrations. The new academic year compares with the preceding year by the heightened reign of power and influence by the military coup regime, which has used nothing but brute force to attain this stronghold.
After witnessing the persistence, resilience and determination of Egypt's students in the previous year, Egyptian security forces sought to increase their grip on the youth who, since the coup, have not withered in their resolve to stand in opposition to the bloody military coup which removed the nation's first democratically-elected president. In its crackdown against the president's party and supporters, the coup government has taken the life of thousands and imprisoned tens of thousands more.
The security forces were not satisfied by the increased security measures they had implemented in the previous academic year which included an increased police presence on campuses, the arrest of students, the exclusion of pupils and faculty members from universities and the premature end to the academic year. However, the regime have applied further repressive security measures for the current year including deploying a private security firm, Falcon, to provide security services for 12 universities across Egypt, with security dogs, metal detectors; the fitting of surveillance cameras across campus to help identify any student who partakes in any anti-coup protests; the issuing of instructions to university presidents to permanently expel any student who has been found participating in any demonstration within the university, without referral for investigation or disciplinary action; the removal of university presidents who oppose the coup despite not having any record of violations; and the issuing of a decree appointing deans and university presidents by the coup leader personally and preventing any elections for the appointment of new presidents. In June, coup leader Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi issued a presidential decree that allowed him to directly appoint university and faculty deans.
Student informants and spies seem to be used by university officials. Indeed, in an interview on the Egyptian channel Al-Nahar, Hussein Uwaida, head of teaching staff at Al-Azhar University, claimed that he had recruited spies from amongst the students for the benefit of the university and national security and that he oversees and supervises them.
In a television interview the country's Higher Education Minister Al-Sayed Abdul Khaliq vowed to "immediately" expel any student or faculty member who was proved to have taken part in a protest. He threatened that the actions that would be taken against the "the perpetrators of acts of violence and rioting, and those participating in demonstrations" would make them regret their participation in any demonstration. As well as requesting that all footage from the surveillance cameras be analysed promptly, he demanded that all social media activity also be monitored to identify students involved in protests from photographs and videos posted on the various sites.
Meanwhile, in another television programme, the President of Mansoura University Mohamed El-Kenawy warned that the police would respond to any gathering immediately "in a decisive manner, in a way greater than anyone can imagine". Later he said: "Do not tell me about freedom of expression."
The deployment of Falcon
Diaa Sawy, deputy head of Youth Against the Coup, said: "Falcon is a militia which the government uses to clamp down on students on university campuses." On Sunday, anti-regime student movements from 20 universities across Egypt took part in "The students are back" campaign. This led to clashes between the police and students in Al-Azhar, Cairo and Ain Shams universities, resulting in the security firm withdrawing its personnel. This followed a day in which the riot police fired tear gas and students broke down security fences in Al-Azhar and Cairo universities.
Falcon receives five million Egyptian pounds ($0.7 million) monthly to provide security for the 12 Egyptian universities and is the same security firm that was used for safeguarding the campaign headquarters of the former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik in 2012, and of current President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi in 2014, who still employs Falcon security officials. The Chairman of Falcon's Board of Directors was a military intelligence agent when the department was headed by Al-Sisi, and is thought to have a close relationship with the president, according to political analyst Muhammad A-Quddosy.
Egyptian universities with Falcon security:
- Ain Shams
- Beni Suef
The choice of Falcon, which was set up in 2006 and owned by a number of big regime personalities such as business tycoon Naguib Sawiris and former intelligence officer Sameh Seif Al-Yazal, has brought about much condemnation from human rights and student organisations. The Arab Organisation of Human Rights (AOHR) has called for all contracts between the Higher Education Ministry and Falcon and its affiliate the Commercial International Bank be terminated.
In a statement, AOHR said the involvement of the security firm will only ignite further tension from the students who have been practising their rights of protesting peacefully, and that the corrupt regime is endeavouring to turn universities into police camps and this will only further exacerbate political tensions.
Beware of the students' rage
Students have been mobilising and fighting lengthy battles to obtain court orders to remove the police presence, put in place by previous dictators Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, from universities. Police were expelled from campuses following the January 25 revolution, and were replaced with alternative security personnel affiliated with each individual university. Following the massacres in Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda squares in August 2013, students erupted into raging protests resulting in unprecedented retaliation by police and security forces who shot hundreds and arrested thousands, without any distinction between males and females.
The students' increased rage can be attributed to the incarceration of approximately 1,800 students and 60 university faculty members who are being held in military prisons for their opposition to the current coup regime. There are also approximately 200 university students and faculty members who have been killed in the past 16 months; heads of universities are selected by authorities; any student political activism has been banned; universities have become military barracks; spies and informants have been appointed from within university campuses; students who criticise Al-Sisi are threatened with expulsion; and there is a continued policy to repress any anti-regime activities.
In a statement, Students Against the Coup said that the university protests are ongoing as "a new revolutionary year" begins, in pursuit of freedom and the release of their detained classmates, and in retribution for those killed on university grounds in the past year.
Following the withdrawal of Falcon's staff, police and security forces were back on the scene and used their previous techniques against the unarmed students. Tear gas and firearms were used to contain and disperse the ongoing protests.
To date, since the beginning of the academic year, over 232 students have been arrested during police raids against anti-government protesters including 60 who were detained in one day in Alexandria University where students were trapped in the vicinity of the Department of Engineering surrounded by armed police who opened fire leaving them seriously injured.
A further 60 student activists were arrested in their homes by uniformed police, plainclothes officers and heavily-armed special forces units the night before the start of the new academic year.
"This mass arrest of students is a pre-emptive strike on free speech and free assembly," Joe Stork, deputy director for Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, said. "Universities should be safe zones for the exchange of ideas, including political debates."
In response to the student anti-coup protests, the Minister of Religious Endowments in the coup government Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa said that any student or university member who incites or funds violence must feel the full force of the law. He added that there is no space in universities for opposition to the rule of the country.
Ahmed Shobeir, a former Egyptian football player and a television presenter, suggested that universities should be closed for a year to deal with the students' anti-regime activities. Meanwhile, the Egyptian writer and thinker Youssef Ziedan wrote on Facebook: "If tomorrow there's no decision to close Al-Azhar University and suspend classes in some of the departments for two years, we will greatly regret it."
The revolution is very much still alive
The student movement is and always will be an indication of the state of the country. Today in Egypt, as long as the students are active and protesting then the revolution is ongoing. Indeed, the fuel of the revolution is the blood and soul of those that have been martyred for the sake of the nation's freedom and dignity, and until the aims are met, the calls will not cease.
With the presence of a private security firm, guard dogs, security gates, armed personnel, surveillance cameras, high fences surrounding university grounds, on university campuses, it is clear that Al-Sisi does not want to hear the voices of the students shouting "down, down with the military rule" and is trying his best to suppress them.
The killing or arrest of those who oppose the regime with the intention of restricting or stifling political dissent will not silence nor destroy the idea and the resolve of what thousands have given their lives for since January 25, 2011, that of freedom, democracy, justice and an honourable dignified life.
University grounds are, and always be, the source of all political action, and will continue to be a mirror that reflects fascist attempts to limit individual, political and academic freedoms. Indeed, it will be the students, as it has always been, who are capable of humiliating the country's authorities. By standing against the regime's tool, Falcon, and forcing them to withdraw from university grounds in just six hours, they did just that, and there is no sign of them withering or quietening down anytime soon.
Facing such a generation which is adamant to fulfil its dreams and hold on to its liberty, a generation which toppled a historic dictator within days and has since resolved to give their lives to achieve maintain the freedoms they fought for, there is no doubt that Egypt will be liberated.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.