In Egypt, university campuses emerge as the latest battleground


Female students at al-Azhar University, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, shout slogans against the military and Interior Ministry last week. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

Students who support deposed president Mohamed Morsi have intensified their anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks, staging strikes and clashing with police on university campuses as security forces clamp down on dissent.

With Morsi and other top Muslim Brotherhood leaders imprisoned after a military takeover this past summer, students who opposed the coup are drawing support from universities where Islamists have deep roots.

The authorities have adopted a tough line in response, granting police the authority to enter college campuses without warrants to quell protests. On Thursday, security forces firing tear gas and water cannons broke up the latest big rally at Cairo University, setting off clashes that left one person dead, according to news agencies.

The government’s actions are raising fears of a return to an approach that prevailed before Egypt’s 2011 revolution, with security forces harassing and intimidating students and professors in the name of national security.

In a sign that the government crackdown has widened beyond the Islamist opposition, security forces arrested prominent blogger and political activist Alaa Abdel Fattah on Thursday night. He was charged with inciting an anti-government demonstration earlier this week.

“The security state has returned to the universities,” said Mahmoud Omar, a 24-year-old medical student and secretary general of the student wing of the Strong Egypt Party, which is led by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a moderate Islamist politician who ran for president in 2012.

In 2010, under then-President Hosni Mubarak, a court barred Egypt’s powerful Interior Ministry from stationing units at public universities, where operatives had worked to thwart political activism. But now, plainclothes agents are again prowling university campuses, monitoring demonstrations and regulating entry at the schools’ gates.

“If we were living under a just government, this would not be a problem,” said Omar, who is helping coordinate Cairo area student activists to oppose the police presence on campus. “But we are again living under an oppressive regime.”

Beginning in mid-November, police have used tear gas, batons and birdshot to disperse near-
daily protests against the military-appointed government at universities in Cairo, the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt in the south. One student at Cairo’s al-Azhar University was killed Nov. 21, and dozens more have been arrested.

On Nov. 13, a court in Cairo sentenced 12 students from al-Azhar, where support for the Muslim Brotherhood is strong, to 17 years in prison for inciting riots. At several demonstrations, protesters have destroyed or damaged property on university grounds. Young people, many of whom are now organizing under the banner Students Against the Coup, responded to the sentences with more protests.

At Cairo University last weekend, hundreds of student demonstrators and professors chanted against military rule on the main campus, later joining ­forces with an anti-coup protest on the street outside. Students at the engineering department of Cairo’s Ain Shams University have gone on strike, refusing to take midterm exams until their peers are set free.

“The universities right now are in revolution mode, and the police cannot control this,” said Hesham Ashraf, head of the student union at Cairo University. “The students are using the safety of the campus to oppose the coup and to send a message to the outside world — and that is their right.”

The Muslim Brotherhood began building its robust presence at universities in the 1970s, recruiting from campus religious associations and soon rising to dominate student unions at major universities.

Mubarak came to view the activities as a threat to his increasingly autocratic rule and moved to exert state control over the student associations. The Brotherhood saw its fortunes rebound after the revolution that toppled Mubarak, then lost popularity as Morsi’s presidency faltered. But the group’s reach on the nation’s campuses remains strong.

“There were various places where the Brotherhood recruited, and campuses were a primary locus for that, really up to the present,” said Nathan Brown, Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “And campuses right now are a real site for political contestation. They are part of what little space still exists for the Brotherhood and its supporters to demonstrate.”

Ahmed Mohamed, a student at al-Azhar, is among those who are aiming their protests at both university officials and the military-backed government. “Inside the university, we have demands,” he said in front of a school building smothered in obscene graffiti denouncing the army and its commanding officer and Egypt’s de facto leader, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. “And we are also here to call for the return of Morsi.”

University administrators said that they respect the students’ right to protest but that the demonstrations are disrupting campus life. As Mohamed spoke, about a dozen riot police officers stood menacingly at the university gates, while plainclothes officers surveyed a demonstration.

“No matter what the political situation, you know the university is going to be a hotbed,” said Karim Medhat Ennarah, security sector researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Sharaf al-Hourani and Lara El Gibaly contributed to this report.

Erin Cunningham is an Egypt-based correspondent for The Post. She previously covered conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor, GlobalPost and The National.
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