Universities on fire in Egypt

Another Al Azhar student has reportedly died in clashes with police. I just wrote something for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the unrest on Egyptian campuses (it is behind a paywall).

El Watan video of police firing tear gas and bird shot into Al Azhar university

The Islamic university of al-Azhar, which has its main campus in Cairo, has close to half a million students. The university is a historic center of learning in the Arab world and is where most preachers in the country are trained. Various Islamist groups are active on the campus and in the student union; they blame the university's leadership for supporting the military coup. In late October the administration asked the police enter the campus to quell protests, which has resulted in a running battle.

Police forces have surrounded the university and fired tear gas inside; they have raided dormitories and classrooms. In clashes between students and the police, students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails; the police fired bird shot at them. A dozen students were given 17-year sentences on charges of rioting and trying to break into administration buildings.

At Cairo University, a freshman engineering student named Mohamed Reda was shot and killed on November 28 in a clash with the police at the university gates. Mohamed Ibrahim, the Egyptian minister of the interior, defended the conduct of the police, saying that the students had blocked traffic and thrown stones at policemen. He also claimed that Mr. Reda had been killed by fellow students.

Gaber Nassar, the university's president, issued a statement condemning the security forces' "direct attack" on the university and the College of Engineering. The college's student union called the interior minister's statement a "fabrication." Clashes between students and the police have escalated since Mr. Reda's death.

Last week the engineering dean and three of his deputies resigned in protest. Sherif Mourad, the dean, told The Chronicle he had done so because he could not "secure the safety of my students." He said that when the police fire tear gas onto the campus, "this is not a learning environment."

The Middle East Studies Association has written an open letter to Prime Minister Beblaway calling on him to halt the violations of academic freedom at Egyptian universities. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and NGO that follows academic freedom, has documented clashes and abuses at universities across the country since the beginning of the Fall semester. 

An all-out brawl between female Azhar students and security guards armed with sticks.

Trouble on campus

 

According to the minister of education, if you knew what is going on in Egyptian universities, you would faint. As a frequent university goer, I can assure you that you wouldn't. In all likelihood, you would just lose body moisture and tolerance of others.

His remark was addressed to the “trembling hand” that is the government that is Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, whom talk shows have been taking aim at for not trying hard enough to stop everything from getting worse. (Presumably they are doing this to salvage some pretense of objectivity and because it is probably fun to heroically yell at “them,” the unnamed people who really are in charge, for not removing the people you disapprove of from their posts.)

One of el-Beblawi’s greatest weakness, many think, is his inability to get universities under control. Since most of the Muslim Brothers lucky enough not to be in prison are in universities, so are most of their protests. (The rest materialize in villages and poor neighborhoods that are easier to ignore and tend to disperse as quickly as they have gathered.) Cairo University Brothers, for instance, protest on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, according to MB youth leader Ahmed Badawi (who recently joined his superiors in prison).

The MB protests usually lead to small counter-protests by smirking pro-Sisi students, which culminates in the protrusion of veins, the stretching of many collars, and occasional injuries sustained while scores of unfazed students shuffle by, hugging books or filming videos that manage to show nothing and explain less.

If one were to graph the number of students protests against apathy towards them, one would have a straight line shooting up to the corner of the page and beyond. And it is more or less the same story everywhere. Some angry students protest. Others disagree. Violence erupts. Security doesn’t intervene due to a committed policy of non-participation in real or potential danger. Flushed, a dean strides in somewhere followed by glaring subordinates. He orders an investigation (a synonym for suspending students, a decision that may or may not be renewed at will, and withdrawing their IDs, denying them entry to campus). Some time later comes an announcement of cameras being installed to record spreaders of chaos in the act.


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Lessons from Egypt's student elections

To follow up on last week's news about a Brotherhood routing in student elections, we sent Nour The Intern to Ain Shams university to see what happened exactly and what lessons might be drawn for national elections.

“(The Brothers) can't have the presidency and the student union," happily exclaimed a dentistry student at Ain Shams university, Shaymaa Hosny. 

According to recent results of student elections and the commonly outspoken sentiments against the Muslim Brotherhood in universities; Hosny is not alone.

"Students didn't just vote for the not-MB candidates only because they're not-MB," argued Amany Bahgat, a Masr Al Kawia 2nd year candidate in Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, "but also because not-MB candidates had actual work plans."

Masr Al Kawia Party (Strong Egypt, centrist Islamist party founded by former Brother and presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh) has been working on its campaign and forming alliance with Al-Destour (social democratic party founded by Mohamed ElBaradei), and others, since January, Bahgat explained. She speculates that the reason why the MB did so poorly - aside from their popularity dip thanks to Morsi's blunders - was because the MB's youth, unlike all the other parties, didn't put much effort into their campaign and lacked a solid program.

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Universities in Iraq

I was traveling last week so I didn't get around to posting this when it came out, but I recently wrote an article about Iraqi universities and the challenges they face for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The article is behind the subscription wall, but here's the beginning:

Eight years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a few months after the withdrawal of the military forces from the country, Iraq's universities, devastated by years of dictatorship, sanctions, and war, are still struggling to recover. The security situation has improved since the deadly, dark days of 2006 and 2007, when the country teetered on the brink of sectarian war, hundreds of professors were assassinated, and thousands more fled the country.

Today some of those refugee scholars have returned. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has a bigger budget and new, ambitious plans. Iraqi universities are looking to the outside world, hoping that international partnerships will help them reform their curricula and retrain their staffs. The government is investing more in public scholarship programs to send thousands of graduate students to study abroad and make up the country's new teaching cadres.

On the other hand, Iraqi universities remain highly centralized, politicized, and in need of systemic reform. The country is ruled by parties representing Iraq's Shiite majority, which was discriminated against under Saddam Hussein. But today, Sunnis and secular Shiites worry that academic standards and freedoms are still threatened by sectarianism and religious and political ideology—just in reverse. They complain of discrimination and say that university appointments are being made on the basis of religious affiliation and political connections rather than academic qualifications.

"Before, the Baath Party was controlling all universities, and you had to be a high party official to be university president or dean," says Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of gender studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, who has worked on several efforts to connect Iraqi academics with their counterparts in the region. "Now each political party controls a university—the only pluralism is the plurality of dictatorial parties that are using the same methods to exert control."

The four major universities in Baghdad, for example, are each headed by a president that represents a particular political party or faction. I don't know Iraq well, but if the universities are anything to go on, the new, "democratic" country touted by US officials is a deeply dysfunctional one where sectarianism and the threat of violence shadows everything in a very oppressive way. I found it telling that not a single Iraqi academic who is currently inside the country would speak to me on the record. 

Crack-down in Bahrain

We talked about Bahrain in our last podcast. I have been in touch with students and professors there for a story on the how the crackdown on the country's Shia protest movement has affected universities for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The incredible verdicts against doctors have gotten the most attention, but students and professor have also been targeted: 

On October 3, six university students were sentenced to 15-year jail terms and another student to an 18-year term by a special military court. They were accused of attempted murder, arson, and vandalism in connection with clashes that took place on the campus of the University of Bahrain, the main national university, on March 13. The students and their supporters say the violence that day was carried out by Bahrain security forces and government supporters, none of whom have been charged.

Other students and professors are facing charges of illegal assembly, incitement, and disturbing the peace. At least 100 professors and university administrators have been fired, and about 60 students have been denied the right to continue their studies.

After the jump I'm attaching an interview with an (anonymous, by necessity) fired Bahraini university professor that didn't make it into the piece. 

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