The recent Supreme Council of Universities (SCU) decision to dissolve all student unions and remove the Interior Ministry-affiliated campus guards is necessary but insufficient to ensure the revival of student activism, experts say.
Instead, what is required is an overhaul of the current legal framework that regulates campus activism. Past restrictions have traditionally imposed serious administrative obstacles on students.
In 2007, former President Hosni Mubarak issued university bylaws that regulate student affairs. The rules gave university administrative bodies the right to bar students from running in university elections. In effect, they severely restricted independent political expression inside student campuses.
“It’s incomplete [to dissolve students’ unions] without removing the current bylaws,” said the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), an NGO which advocates for student rights, in a Thursday statement.
During the last student elections held in October 2010, almost all of Egypt’s university administrative bodies prevented scores of students affiliated with the opposition, especially those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, from running in student elections.
Media reports said that during this year’s first academic semester, universities witnessed unprecedented crackdowns by university officials in cooperation with police guards.
In early October, for example, police guards at Al-Azhar University branch in Zaqazeeq physically assaulted Somayya Ashraf, a Brotherhood affiliated student.
Also, independent faculty members were harassed and scores of opposition students referred for legal prosecution as punishment for their political activities.
“These terrible times are over now. We are acting freely now, and we are planning to launch new student campaigns as soon as classes resume [on 5 March],” said Khalid Ali, a student at the University of Helwan.
Human rights activists said security personnel, who are suppose to guard university campuses, constitute a main source of violations. The former regime had refused to adhere to a prior court ruling, issued in October 2010, which barred police presence at universities.
"The presence of permanent Interior Ministry police forces inside university campuses represents a violation of university independence guaranteed by the Constitution and the law," the ruling read.
Students widely participated in the recent 18-day revolution that ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule. As a result, the SCU was compelled to dissolve all student unions and committees in response to popular demand.
“We’ve come to university now, and all the security guards aren’t wearing police uniforms, but rather causal clothing. Still, we have fears about what they will do,” said Ali, a member in the Justice and Freedom Movement, a coalition of young Islamists, leftists and liberal activists.
Asked about the chances for students affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood to sweep upcoming student elections, Ali admitted the possibility of this scenario given the Brotherhood’s strong presence on university campuses. He noted, however, that the Brotherhood pledged to not seek a majority in students’ union elections.
“Brotherhood students are cooperating with us now because everybody knows that the task is to abolish the current arbitrary bylaws,” added Ali. Whether that cooperation will continue after the bylaws are changed, however, he left an open question.
In a Thursday press statement, the AFTE called for drafting new bylaws that grant students the right to freely participate in political activities and influence university budgets.