Security forces make a comeback to Egyptian universities

Developments in several universities across the country have seen the state escalating its violent clampdown on student protests

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

On Dec. 17, the Committee on Academic Freedom at the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) drafted a letter addressed to Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawy. The letter aimed at expressing the association’s “grave concern” over the recent developments in several universities across the country with the state escalating its violent clampdown on student protests amid fears of a “worsening climate for free speech and peaceable assembly on university campuses in Egypt.” The letter listed three main incidents that render such concerns legitimate. The “worst” of the three incidents is the shooting and killing of freshman engineering student Mohammad Reda at Cairo University by security forces while he was on campus grounds coupled with the Ministry of Interior’s refusal to admit responsibility.

The second incident is the sentencing of 12 students from al-Azhar University in Cairo to 17 years each, a punishment that the association considers “draconian” since it was based on adding up the maximum penalty for all six crimes each of the students were charged with while they should have been handed the sentence for only the most serious of the crimes. The third incident is the storming of the campus of Zagazig University in the northern Egypt by security forces to disperse a sit-in staged by students to demand the release of 23 of their colleagues arrested the week before on charges of sabotage following on-campus clashes. The association called upon the prime minister to look into the three cases and take the necessary measures to see justice done and to make sure that universities remain a place where students can freely and safely express themselves as part of their citizenship rights. “The government of Egypt is responsible for protecting and upholding the rights of all of its citizens, including those who disagree with particular decisions made by the authorities and take to the streets to voice their opposition,” the letter said towards its conclusion. “Academic freedom and freedom of expression on university campuses are two of the most important of those rights in Egypt, where universities have historically played such a vital role in political and civic life.” The ministers of justice, education, and the interior as well as the rectors of Cairo, al-Azhar, and Zagazig universities were copied.

Clashes and student arrests have been ongoing in several other campuses and while many of the protests were initially organized by Islamists, especially the group called Students against the Coup, who call for the return of ousted President Mohammad Mursi, recent ones have started focusing on police brutality and fears of the return of security forces to university grounds. The first intervention by security forces on campus grounds was at al-Azhar upon the request of university rector Osama al-Abd who, according to a security statement, contacted Minister of Interior Mohammad Ibrahim to ask for immediate help to “protect lives and property” following Islamist students’ storming of the university administration building and taking al-Abd and many of the staff hostage.

After relative calm was restored, al-Abd still insisted that security forces remain. “There is no talk now about security forces leaving now,” he said as he toured campus to check the damages. “Not until things go back to normal.” Conflicting testimonies were reported about al-Azhar clashes. Ahmed Saleh, an Islamist activist and member of Students against the Coup said security forces were brutal and insisted that they attacked protestors before they took the demonstration outside campus grounds. “The government wants to muzzle our voices. They do not want to listen to the voice of freedom and truth,” he said. Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel Latif denied Saleh’s allegations and stressed that the police exercised self-restraint even though the protestors started the violence with throwing stones from inside the campus. “They also attacked the police with Molotov cocktails. Protesters destroyed three police vehicles and injured several security personnel, in addition to burning private cars owned by university employees and staff members,” he added. Abdel Latif also noted that had the police not intervened, residents of the neighboring areas would have attacked the protestors anyway: “People are fed up with what they’re doing.”

Public outrage

Official responses to al-Azhar incidents did not spark as much public outrage as they did in the case of Cairo University’s Mohammad Reda who was shot dead. In a televised press conference, Minister of Interior Mohammad Ibrahim warned Egyptian students of being dragged into acts of violence. “I urge students to stay alert and not to be led astray by saboteurs,” he said. “I appeal to their sense of nationalism.” He called the protests in Egyptian universities “a conspiracy against Egypt” that aims at reversing the June 30 revolution and reinstating the Muslim Brotherhood rule. The minister refused to comment on Reda’s death, adding that the investigations would reveal the truth. The prosecutor general’s office then issued a press release stating that the type of gun that killed Reda was not used by security forces and that he was shot by other protestors. Minister of Higher Education Hossam Eissa supported those statements and stressed that the police around the university only use rubber bullets. He also said that the Muslim Brotherhood might be behind Reda’s death. “I don’t find it unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood was involved in killing Reda.

They kill police and army officers all the time. They are trying to topple the state through attacking its most vital institutions,” he said in a TV interview. The reaction of Cairo University rector Gaber Nassar was different as he lashed out at the Ministry of Interior for using excessive violence in dispersing the protests and held security forces responsible for the death of Mohammad Reda. “We will not accept the Interior Ministry’s claims that security forces did not use gunshots because if they did not, they must tell us who did,” he said. “The Ministry of Interior attacked Cairo University. This is unacceptable. We are documenting all those attacks and will report them to the relevant bodies so that those who did wrong can be punished.” Nassar refuted the Interior Ministry’s claims that the protests were all staged by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood: “Pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests did not exceed 100 students. The rest were against the Interior Ministry and those are expanding.” The university administration issued a statement supporting Nassar’s stance and accusing security forces of “crossing all lines.”

Security forces on university grounds

On-campus violence has also given rise to speculations about the possible return of security forces to university grounds, as was the case before the January 25 Revolution, and raised concerns among activists and academics alike. Revolution Youth Union and member of the politburo of the Revolutionary Forces Coalition Tamer al-Kadi said that the return of security forces to universities is bound to arouse suspicions about the Interior Ministry’s motives regarding academic freedom. “If it is about the safety of students, professors, and staff then there can be security affiliated to the university like court guards, who are affiliated to the Ministry of Justice,” he said. Mahmoud Radwan, head of the Alexandria University Student Union argued that the return of security forces to campuses will endow Muslim Brotherhood protests with legitimacy: “Students from civilian factions will also object to the return of security forces so Islamist students will find support.”

Hani al-Husseini, Cairo University professor and a leading member of the March 9 Movement for the Independence of Egyptian Universities, one of whose main goals was to end the intervention of the Ministry of Interior in academic activities, attributes a large part of the recent violence to what he calls “the provocative presence of the police inside and around campuses.” As for protests staged by Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers or clashes between Islamist and liberal students, he argues that “those do not usually go beyond some stone throwing and the university’s civilian security is capable of dealing with that.” On the other hand, Minster of Interior Mohammad Ibrahim has been reassuring all concerned parties that security forces would never go back to university campuses. “The presence of security forces on university grounds during the former regime had led to constant tension with students. We do not want to see this happen again now,” he stressed.