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Why are Egyptian universities silent about the situation in Gaza?

May 7, 2024 at 2:40 pm

A student stands for a portrait in front of a banner listing student demands during the pro-Palestine student protests at the University of Nevada Reno (UNR), on Friday, April 26, 2024 [KIA RASTAR/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images]

While students continue to protest in the United States and other Western countries about the Israeli war against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, silence reigns at Egypt’s universities for the eighth month in a row. This has left many question marks about the dormant student movement in a country that is the most populous in the Arab region and in direct contact with the Palestinian cause.

Ironically, it was Egyptian-born Nemat “Minouche” Shafik behind the suppression of the student movement at Columbia University. The university president and unelected member of Britain’s upper chamber of parliament used a similar approach to that which has been controlling Egyptian universities for years.

Under the sword of silence, 109 public and private universities in Egypt have turned into walls of fear when it comes to the complicated political situation in Egypt. This has been the case ever since the military coup in mid-2013.

As Israel’s military offensive in Gaza started, and with the apparent failure of Egypt to show any support to the Palestinians, removing the student movement from the equation became a necessity. According to political expert Amr El-Sayed, this can be explained inter alia as an attempt to avoid embarrassing the regime internationally. The Egyptian authorities fear that any demonstrations will be exploited to criticise the regime’s position, which is not compatible with the country’s moral, political and historical responsibility for Gaza. In addition, there is always the official concern about demonstrations in general, and the phobia about popular events and gatherings having the potential to turn against the regime.

Opponents say that what Shafik did by calling the New York Police Department to suppress protests in support of the Palestinians in Gaza, was an expression of Egyptian culture that is the reality in her homeland. Egypt is governed by a policy of silencing people and crushing any form of dissent.

A limited number of marches were allowed in Egyptian universities last October. They were dominated by chants in support of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and his opposition to the displacement of Palestinians to the Sinai Peninsula. The demonstrations were led by student unions, many of whose leaders were appointed by and loyal to the security services.

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Human rights organisations confirmed that the Ministry of Higher Education removed more than two thousand students from the electoral lists in 2015, after having disrupted student elections for two years with no legal basis. In December, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters criminalised university demonstrations without authorisation by the president, dealing a severe blow to the student movement.

According to the student regulations effective in Egyptian universities since August 2017, political and politicised conditions are in place.

They include the fact that a nominee for a student union or other position must not have been subject to disciplinary sanctions or have been sentenced to a criminal punishment prejudicial to honour and trust (unless his/her reputation has been restored); and must not belong to any terrorist organisation, entity or group established in contravention of the law. Candidate lists must be vetted by the security services to exclude those with anti-Sisi tendencies.

Throughout 2013 and 2014 in Egypt, 1,528 students were arrested; 329 were forcibly disappeared; 237 faced military trials; 21 were killed; and 584 were dismissed, the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms has pointed out. The head of the independent human rights organisation, Ezzat Ghoneim, was himself arrested in March 2018 and received a prison sentence of a maximum of 15 years.

Furthermore, some students were added to list of “terrorists” in 2018. They included the former presidents of Tanta University and Sohag University Student Unions. This explains in part the paralysis of Egypt’s universities concerning the issue of Gaza and other issues at home and abroad.

To this must be added the repression of faculty members. In 2014, an amendment to the Universities Organisation Law was issued, requiring that university presidents and college deans be appointed by the President of the Republic. This abolished the election mechanism for selecting university leaders in a bid to remove Al-Sisi’s political opponents.

READ: Egypt secures $8bn IMF deal as economy is in freefall

Under the state of emergency in Egypt, which was lifted in late 2021, academics who crossed the regime’s red lines were detained arbitrarily and put on trial. They included the late academic Hazem Hosni, political science Professor Hassan Nafaa, and the head of the Planning Department at Cairo University, Magdy Qarqar. The professor of political science at Alexandria University, Ahmed El-Tohamy, has been under arrest since June 2020 and is still in “pre-trial detention”. Helwan University’s Professor Yahya Al-Qazzaz was also referred for investigation on wide-ranging charges, such as insulting the president of the country. In addition, Professor Seif Abdel Fattah from the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University was dismissed from his job.

In February 2021, eight human rights organisations called for the release of university professors detained in pre-trial detention in political cases simply for exercising their right of freedom of opinion and expression. They stressed that the security restrictions on researchers and university professors constitute a violation of the political and civil rights and freedoms of members of the academic community. This, they insisted, will have a negative impact on the future of higher education and scientific research in Egypt.

A legal expert spoke to me on condition of anonymity, and pointed out that government restrictions against universities increased under the Public Establishments Protection Law No. 136 of 2014. The law regards universities as public facilities which allows the government to prosecute civilians as military personnel and to refer demonstrations that take place within universities to sanctions by military courts.

Egyptian universities are held in a vice-like grip by the security agencies, with electronic gates and surveillance cameras, directed by a control room in each institution.

Surveillance covers auditoriums, classrooms and the courtyards and walls of all universities, recording around the clock.

This repression is reinforced by “birds”, students who have been recruited as informants to spy on their classmates who might have political affiliations opposed to the regime. In exchange, the informants receive privileges from university administrators, student activists have confirmed.

The previous system required each college to be supervised by police officers in the so-called University Guard, part of the Ministry of Interior. This security apparatus was linked closely to the internal National Security intelligence agency, whose structure includes officers specialised in monitoring student and academic activities within universities.

Although a court ruling abolished the University Guard in October 2010 and replaced it with civilian units supervised by university administrators, the Ministers of the Interior and Higher Education at the time refused to implement it. However, the 25 January Revolution 2011 ensured that it was implemented later in the same year.

When widespread protests were held against the removal of democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi in the coup on 3 July, 2013, Egyptian security officers stormed universities under the pretext of dispersing the protesters. This was supported by a judicial ruling issued by a court that had no jurisdiction on the matter — the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters — in February 2014, which stipulated the return of the University Guard.

In September 2014, the Ministry of Higher Education hired the private Falcon Security Company, which secured Sisi’s campaign in the 2014 presidential election. This experiment failed after only one year, with clashes between students and Falcon personnel. Security supervised by administrators returned to universities, supported by an arsenal of fearsome equipment.

Fear causes more silence, according to an Egyptian researcher requesting anonymity. He explained the unfolding scenario to be the result of a number of factors, including the lack of a democratic political environment; the student movement being nationalised since 2013; not allowing any margin for political manoeuvre; suppressing the student movement; and intimidating independent academics. Moreover, student activities have been reduced to matters of entertainment or patriotism as part of the suppression of any dissenting voices in Egypt, which is governed once more by a repressive regime during the Sisi era.

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