The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged students
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.

The results of the elections were surprising to many, particularly in major universities like Ain Shams where the MB lost in 13 (out of the 15) faculties, some of which they failed to win any seats. However, Mahmoud Kandil, an ex-Muslim Brother, wasn’t in the least bit surprised. They lost because they got arrogant, he said.

"The Brotherhood was never inclusive, but it was cooperative... During Mubarak's era, (the MB) used to work with the Revolutionary Socialists and April 6th against the NDP," he noted, but now that NDP has been reduced to an almost parasitic and persecuted existence as “feloul,” in addition to the MB’s electoral winning streak; the Brothers have lulled themselves into a false sense of security.

That false sense of security lead them to believe there was no pressing need for campaigning, particularly when their opponents were seen as likely to boycott, or at least fail to provide an actual alternative to them, like the MB's older opposition.

Ironically, the MB's student opposition did in fact consider a boycott — which would have certainly resulted in a slam-dunk win for the MB — to object to the Egyptian Student Union’s (an entity created, headed and dominated by the MB) new regulations, which were not put to a referendum despite the absolute lack of consensus upon them — not quite unlike the constitution.

These regulation included rules such forbidding activities or seminars without the permission of the Department of Youth Monitoring and Welfare, which raised Brotherhoodization concerns since positions in that department are held by the Dean’s direct appointment, who is appointed by the Supreme Council of Universities. So if one was to infiltrate the Council, which already has some MB-sympathetic and anti-MB members, managed to appoint an MB, then the MB, by extension, has complete control over every single study activity. But since the appointments are customarily based on seniority and the MB lost its foothold in universities, that’s no longer a pressing concern. Nonetheless, there are now talks about possible MB protests against the new regulations, drafted and passed by them, which, now that the power balance has shifted, they suddenly realize are unfair.

The regulations passed by the ESU prove that the MB didn't expect to lose, Kandil asserted. "Why would the MB-dominated ESU give student unions the power to ban any student activity or cancel any event with just one third of the votes, if the MB didn't expect to win?" he asked, rhetorically.

However, others attributed the MB's loss to their failure to form alliances, despite trials with Al-Wasat (moderate Islamist party founded by ex-Brothers in the 1990s) and Salafis, a failure that could simply be an extension of the rekindled political animosity between the Islamists. Whereas new political forces such as Masr Al-Kawia, which is still lacking in organization, easily paired up with El-Destour (which is also still lacking in organization), popular currents, independent candidates, etc, “because they form alliance based on skills and qualification rather than just political agreement” and “want to ensure that the university is for everyone," according to the Masr Al Kawia candidate, Bahgat.

Meanwhile, the MB's default response to the election results was to act cool.

"Success was our ally, Thank God," wrote an intentionally-nonchalant MB spokesman, Ahmad Araf, on Facebook, before he accused the media of presenting the numbers in a way to make it look as if the MB has lost miserably, when it actually lost humbly. Using al-Minya University as proof of the MB's "success," Araf presented his main argument to prove MB’s continued electoral dominance: "(MB) ran only for 50 percent of the seats...and it got 54 percent!" (of that 50%... in that one university... which is full of Brothers).

Media coverage of the student elections, particularly from MB critics, portrayed the student elections as an indication of a decline in MB popularity — which can't be disputed, but is nonetheless exaggerated, since many students, as Bahgat put it, were unaware of the elections, yet alone involved. Furthermore, the MB was not so much popular previously as the most likely group to capture protest votes.

“People didn’t necessarily love the MB, we felt sorry for them,” said Tanta University graduate, Amr Youssef. The MB lost sympathy rather than popularity. One of the biggest reasons why the MB dominated SU elections during Mubarak’s time, although results were forged often, was because of how ill-treated MB students were.

“(State Security officers) used to arrest the MB students (to torture them) in February and let them go in May, right before their finals so they’d fail,” Youssef explained. “Sometimes, they’d arrest them during May and they had to attend their exams in cuffs,” he added. A famous case of that common practice is Dr. Youssef al-Qaradawi, who was once released after a long arrest the night before his finals, but still managed to be first in his class.

Apart from robbing the MB students off their dignity and time to study, MB students generally received an especially bad treatment from security personnel and faculty members. So much so that in 2006, MB students, having been bullied enough, struck back with a martial arts demonstration in Al-Azhar university, where intimidating students showed off high they can kick to send a message; MB can stand up for itself, if need be. The affair ended up sending Khairat Al-Shater and other senior Brothers to prison for financing the then-banned MB and its youth. Therefore, voting for them in elections, which were mostly between the MB and the NDP,  was the least fellow students could do in solidarity.

MB critics now fancy the recent student union elections to be a sign of the MB's performance in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

"That's entirely untrue," said Dr. Ahmed Abu-Rabou, a Comparative Politics professor at Cairo university. "Sabahi and Abou El-Fatouh topped all the university polls, prior to the presidential elections, but the run off was between Morsi and Shafik! Let that be a reminder to everyone," he added. Dr. Abu-Rabou went on to argue that support for the MB and education are inversely proportional, thus "MB loses badly when it comes to the educated youth."

“These results should humble the MB, and teach the opposition," said Ain Shams student voter, Ahmed Gamal, who compared the MB's electoral loss to Morsi barely winning the elections against Shafik; "both are evidence that (MB) is not invincible." He added that “the wise old men” of the opposition should now sit down and take notes, "because "the shortsighted youth" not only faced the MB, but united, ran, despite the MB-imposed flawed regulations, and won."

"The wise old men need glasses," he added derisively, before advising them to abandon their reactive policies, the boycott, and "work for Egypt, not just against the Brotherhood."

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. 

- Could you describe what led to your dismissal in some detail? (What was your dismissal based on; during the investigation, who questioned you, what were the questions)

In April 2011, I have received a call from the vice-president office of the University of Bahrain (UoB) asking me to come urgently for a meeting on the same day. I was surprised that the meeting was with an investigation committee on the crises and events during February and March 2011. The committee consists of six faculty from the University.  Almost all the question were about my off-campus activities such as participation in off-campus protests, my political opinion in my Facebook and emails that have political nature, communicating with international media or journalist, memberships in any political associations. Some of the questions are:

v     Did you go to the pearl roundabout and how many times, what was your role?

v     Did you participated in any protest?

v     Do you support the fall of the regime and the government?

v     Are you a member of any political association? Are a member of Al-Wefaq party?

v     Have you forwarded any email that has a political content during February and March?

v     Do you have a Facebook account and is there any content of political nature?

v     Did you sign in any petition, or record in the pearl roundabout?

v     Do you know any of your colleagues that have participated with you in the protests and in the pearl roundabout?

v     Do you talk with your students or colleagues about politics?

 In fact, I have refused initially to answer the questions related to my personal off-campus activities. However, I was forced to answer their questions as I got threatened by the committee that my case will be transferred to the police if I do not cooperate!


In June 2011, I received another letter from the UoB president stating the charges and asked to sit in front of the disciplinary committee. [Ed. Note: the charges against professors have included: participating in protest and sit-in that took place in the Pearl Roundabout, attending seminars that inflame hatred on the goverment and the regime, signing a petition, criticizing the Bahraini government in front of foreign collegues, forwarding emails defaming Bahrain, etc.]

Unfortunately, the disciplinary board was biased, not transparent, and unfair as they did not consider my defense and decided to dismiss me [...] I believe that all of my off-campus activities did not violate the laws and I have just expressed my opinion peacefully as a basic human right and freedom of expression. Although I have sent a letter [...] to the UoB president for an appeal, I have not received yet any response or even an acknowledgment!

- In addition to the dismissal, did you face other consequences (police interrogation, legal action)? 

 Yes, I was arrested during a night raid (early morning) from the first by several masked civilian men supported by security forced with gun. They broke the doors of my house and did not identify themselves or what they want and did not show any official paper or order for arrest. I have been hand cuffed and blindfolded and humiliated physically and verbally during my arrest and interrogation and not allowed to set down. I was not allowed to change my pajama or wear my shoe or sandal during my arrest. In addition, was slapped and threatened of torture by the interrogator officer if I did not confess on what he says. I could not identify the interrogator as I was blindfolded and handcuffed during all the time and standing for several hours. Before the interrogation, I have been humiliated by calling us animals and kept standing and handcuffed with my colleagues in hot room for several hours. The interrogator asked me the same questions that were asked by the UoB investigation committee. Therefore, it seems that the university has passed the investigation papers to the ministry of interior. I was forced to sign papers that I do not know their content. I was not allowed to have a lawyer during the interrogation or call my family. I was released on the same day after spending about 10 hours in the arrest.

Recently, I have received a letter requesting me to summon before the Criminal Court at the ministry of justice [...] The charge indicated in the letter is “national safety”.

- Did you have any idea that joining/supporting a protest could lead to you losing your job? 

I was not expecting that at all. I believe that I have not done any crime or anything that violate the laws. I have just expressed my opinion and practiced my rights peacefully as freedom of expression is a basic human right granted by both the Bahrain constitution and the universal declaration of human rights. I believe that I am innocent and hence not afraid of the consequences. I am welling to pay the price to get the freedom, dignity and real democracy in Bahrain.

- What affect would you say all this had had on the university? How are relations between professors and administration? How have your colleagues (both Sunni and Shia) responded to your dismissal? Are people intimidated, scared?

It seems that some of my colleagues are scared as I have not received any calls from them since my suspension date. Perhaps, they are intimidated because they might face the same consequences if they have caught in connection with us. However, there are many others colleagues (sunni, shia, and even expats) who are calling me regularly. They expressed their emotional support and willingness to support us financially and wishing that we will be reinstated soon. In addition, I am receiving call from my students calling me to express their sadness and missing us as we are not at the university.       


Students and professors in the revolution

I just wrote something for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the role that professors and students played (and hope to play in the future) in the revolution. Groups like March 9 (established by professors to fight for academic freedom) and 6 April (established in solidarity with labour strikes but seemingly also the most active left-wing group among university students) played a role not just in planning and joining the protests, but in laying the groundwork for them. It will be interesting to see if, when national universities re-open next week, we'll see a surge of activism on campuses, which have been tightly monitored and controlled until now.

I'm also curious about the role that high-profile scientists and academics may have in the new government. The Egyptian-American scientists and Nobel winner Ahmad Zewail, in particular, seems to be someone worth watching.