The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

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.

And then before you know it, there is new security personnel looking into, brushing, waving and nodding at every single student’s bag at forever-decreasing-in-size gates (because if you trickle students into campus, they will be too happy to have finally made it in to wield the weapons security missed when they smiled at their bag) and the administration has destined a number of metal detectors to a state of constant hysteria caused by heavily-accessorized female students. This happened in more or less the same sequence in Ain Shams, Mansoura, Monofeya, Kafr el-Sheikh and Misr International University.

That being said, the university making headlines now is Al Azhar. Earlier this week, around 1400 students peacefully marched out of the university to block and pray on al-Nasr road, where they clashed with the police, which was waiting for them outside. The students were pushed back to campus. Once inside, they lit dumpsters on fire to block the security forces’ vision, then threw rocks at them, broke a few windows and drew some offensive graffiti on the walls, which Gen. Magdy Abbas, the head of security at the university, in a fatherly manner described as a “transgression” not befitting an Azhari student.

After Gen. Abbas hung up with TV presenter Youssef el-Husseiny he was dubbed “Little Beblawi” and wished discharge. Meanwhile, others like Tamer Ameen were reporting the confessions of three female Azhari students to putting on makeup and “red solutions” to make it look they have been attacked by the security forces. This is not the first time Al Azhar’s MB students lied or hurt themselves. Earlier this year in April, after two incidents of mass food poisoning, it was reported that three sheb-sheb-wearing students smuggled the very specific amount of 105 bad tuna cans into the kitchen to make it appear as if the pro-old regime Grand Imam of Al-Azhar is incompetently running a public institution that neglects cleanliness and health.

It is worth noting that Al Azhar is one of the few places were the words “MB stronghold” are accurate. They won essentially every student election in every faculty and according to a 2009 report by Amr Ezzat about how many actually Azhari (i.e. subscribing to Al-Azhar’s standards of Islamic moderation) there are in Al Azhar, it anecdotally ranges between two to three percent of the total number of students.

Apart from demanding the fall of the military regime, the main purpose of these nationwide protests, according to the actual protests, is to free their fellow detained students. Ideally, putting pressure on the college community would pressure on the administration and by extension the government, which will then be forced to release the students to shut everyone up. This admittedly long process is made worse by student indifference and the believed-to-be deliberately inadequate non-MB-dominated student unions, who don’t feel the need to halt classes to embarrass administrations and the government or even make noises about it just for show.

Also, these protests are thought to be the only way to “stay in the picture” and derive satisfaction from being a thorn in the side of the coup lead and supporters.This brewing hostility manifested itself after Egypt lost 6-1 to Ghana, crushing the chances of qualifying for the pined-after World Cup. MB supporters engaged in celebrations and chants like “The story is not about the MB, the story is about the six goals” (it rhymes in Arabic), which embittered people against them more than their alleged Sinai attacks and the assassination attempt on the Interior Minister combined.

But prior to the unforgivable treason of not supporting the national soccer team, the MB’s persistent “resistance of reality” has only earned them exhausted disdain that later merged with incomprehension from fellow students, most faculty members and the general public. After all, where is the sanctity of a university campus? And what is the point of student unions anyway? They just get kids worked up. They should have lectures, not protests, indignant columnists reassured each other. These protests are not peaceful, they add - which is not always untrue. While protesters usually don't start out to physically harm others, they sometimes intentionally provoke confrontation to escalate the situation, out of a commonly held, but not well-articulated, belief that nothing happens unless someone gets hurt. Casualties can become the price of attention.

The wave of student protests has also raised the curious and confusing issue of granting security personnel in universities judicial seizure authority, which the deputy head of Cairo University roughly explains would mean transferring investigative authority from the police to campus security. So, now when a student goes to college with say a kitchen knife, instead of handing him over to the police, whose job it is to investigate and fight crime, the on-campus security can investigate the person, which would save his/her some trouble -- says the Cairo University official. First, they don’t have to deal with potential mistreatment in the police station -- it will be outsourced to universities -- and if the students break the law on some kind of police-only holiday, they won’t have to spend the night in jail until the prosecution gets back to work. It is not like this raises extra questions such as:  How long can you keep a student for investigation? Will there be a mini-jail in universities in case the investigation takes more than a day? What happens based on the result of the findings? Where in the world is the legal text of this not-law law? etc, etc. Not to mention that removing police from campus was the key pre-revolutionary demand of politicized students and faculty groups such as March 9.

If there is one thing we know about the judicial authority transfer, it is that the former allegedly MB-affiliated minister of education, under deposed president Morsi, merely requested it on June 4. Nothing indicates whether or not it was accepted and all the ministry of justice has done is deny granting it, while state-run Al-Ahram published reports bemoaning its absence in universities like Al-Azhar, where apparently it could have been used to investigate students into submission, demonstrating the importance of government coordination.

Recently, the current education minister admitted to not having any idea where this law that is not a law come from and added that while he personally thinks it’s useless, it is still up to the Supreme Council of Universities to decide what to do about it, although the ministry of justice has supposedly not given them an "it" to discuss in the first place. More importantly, since everyone is so keen to note that the not-law law was a fruit of Morsi and his unconscionable terrorists’ reign, why is there any controversy at all about whether or not it should exist, if it does?