Nile University (NU) students began an open-ended sit-in on Tuesday after a year and a half of struggle which has pitted them against Nobel Prize winning chemist Ahmed Zewail.
Students are officially excluded from the campus, which appears to have been summarily granted to the Zewail City of Science and Technology during the period in which the executive was under the control of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
The students marched into the university at 9 am on Tuesday morning. According to Ahmed Nassar, NU’s Student Union President, the gates were wide open. The marchers greeted the shocked security guards and pitched camp with tents and banners. Their numbers swelled to 100 on that day, accounting for most of the students enrolled in the troubled university. Students from a few other universities also joined to show solidarity and sympathy.
The students’ demands are displayed on a board at the front of the university. Students are demanding that Nile University become a non-profit public university and that they be able to freely use their campus, its labs and facilities.
“We have been planning this for three weeks, and we have the full support of NU management and faculty as well as the student unions of the American University in Cairo, the German University in Cairo, and the British University in Egypt,” says Nassar.
On Tuesday night, Nassar and faculty member Mahmoud Gabr were apprehended after Zewail City’s management reported them to the police. “The officers told us we would either have to break the sit-in or we’d be detained for four nights,” Nassar claims. They took Gabr for questioning, but released Nassar for unknown reasons.
By midnight, six Central Security Force (CSF) vehicles were parked outside the campus.
However, students refused to leave, saying that they clean up after themselves, have not broken anything, and have not engaged in any form of violence.
Professor Rafik Guindi, a member of NU faculty, stated that the faculty and the management stand by the students in their demands. “We all feel betrayed,” says Guindi, who worked at the campus from its first days.
According to Guindi, from 2006 the land was legally designated for NU by the Ministry of Communication, which owns the land. They had all the legal documents needed, including a presidential decree, and Nile University was to become a non-profit public private partnership, he says. But shortly after the outbreak of the revolution, the NU community was surprised to see a televised announcement that the NU campus was to be given to the Zewail City project.
According to students and faculty interviewed by Egypt Independent, there is no paperwork to prove that the land or buildings belong to Ahmed Zewail. “He did not build one brick in the whole campus or pay a penny in the building process,” says student Noha al-Kammah.
“All of this has political implications,” said Guindi. He says that Fayza Abouelnaga, former minister of international cooperation, is often seen with Zewail on campus, attending official meetings with him and on his behalf. “One must question why she is part of the decision making process,” he says.
The students claim that they exhausted all other possibilities before embarking on the sit-in.
First, they held silent demonstrations approaching all the prime ministers Egypt has seen during the past year and a half. They also approached ministers of education and Parliament, and held strikes in their temporary campus, located in Smart Village.
Zewail City did not respond to Egypt Independent's requests for comment.
Some students feel that public opinion is unjustly stacked against them. “Everyone is with Zewail because he’s Zewail,” says Kammah. “They are all with him only because he has a Nobel Prize.” Zewail City has run a series of television commercials advertising the project and soliciting donations. “They play with people's emotions,” she adds.
Nassar stated that they are not necessarily against the Zewail project as such, they are against “the killing of Nile University and the takeover of the buildings.”
AUC student Hasaballah Kafrawy stated that he’s standing with the students of NU not just because they are fellow students but also because it’s an “Egyptian cause.” As outside students, they have no personal stake in Zewail’s project. “But he does not have to take over the NU buildings to continue with his project,” states Kafrawy. “Egypt is full of empty land that he can use.”
“Zewail has often publicly stated that he wanted to integrate NU into his project, but the fact is, when we sat with him to look over the details he said he’d choose the faculty and students that he thought were proficient enough to be in his project,” says Guindi.
Nile University currently has three court cases pending, and newly appointed Prime Minister Hesham Qandil has formed a committee of ministers to report on and find solutions to the land dispute. However, the NU community no longer wants to wait, Guindi says. Students will be starting their new semester soon and they want to enter the campus.
“We are very optimistic and we are confident because this is our right,” said Guindi. “The shocking fact is that Ahmed Zewail has no legal framework to operate, and Nile University has all the paperwork and every legal right.”