Student union elections reveal Brotherhood’s weakening social base

The preliminary results of student union elections across Egyptian state universities reflect a sweeping success for students affiliated with opposition political groups as well as independents.

The results, observers argue, could detrimentally affect the Muslim Brotherhood’s traditional power base that typically depends heavily on student unions and professional syndicates.

Ongoing student union elections, conducted on five levels across 13 state universities, are witnessing an unexpected voter turnout, with remarkable participation from independent and previously apolitical students contesting seats at the faculties’ level.

According to a report released by the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, independent and non-Islamist politicized students won a sweeping vote in the universities of Cairo, Ain Shams, Benha, Tanta, Alexandria, Monufiya, Assiut and Minya.

At Ain Shams University, the Brotherhood won only nine seats out of 70 in the pharmacy faculty, while the independent Khatwa bloc obtained 60 seats.

At the faculties of medicine and engineering, the Brotherhood also performed poorly, losing ground to independents.

In Minya University, opposition students won all 56 seats in the physical education faculty, shutting the Brotherhood students out. In the agriculture faculty race at Tanta University, independent students won 66 percent of the seats compared to just 34 percent won by the Brotherhood.

So far the Brotherhood and Salafi students have claimed decisive victories only at Beni Suef University.

Students fed up with Brotherhood

These recent victories by students affiliated with the opposition have surprised many, especially after Prime Minister Hesham Qandil officially passed the contentious student bylaws that were drafted by the Egyptian Student Union, which Brotherhood students had dominated.

Many student groups slammed the Brotherhood’s complete control of the bylaws drafting process. They called the drafted bylaws undemocratic, claiming they hamper students’ freedom to organize on state campuses.

The mounting anger by students against the bylaws raised speculation of a possible elections boycott, but Mohamed Nagui, an AFTE researcher, told Egypt Independent that students hope to amend these bylaws from the inside out.

“According to the bylaws, the ESU is entitled to amend the bylaw if one third of its body requests this,” Nagui said.

“With these results, student in the opposition will definitely exceed this quorum and end Brotherhood’s domination over the ESU,” he added.

There are three types of elections: classroom, faculty and general university. Representatives of student unions across universities are then chosen to form the ESU.

Sohaib Mohamed, a leading figure in the Brotherhood student movement and vice president of the contentious ESU told Egypt Independent that the media is manipulating the results.

“In Benha University, the Brotherhood got the highest vote. We won 30 percent of the seats alone. Independent students got 25 percent, the Popular Current won another 15 percent, Dostour won another 15 and Strong Egypt movement won 15 percent,” he said.

“Why is the media is treating the independent students as one bloc with the politicized students? This is a fragmented bloc. You cannot deal with them as a united front,” he added.

The ambitious results of the independent students make them the balancing force amid the ongoing battle between Brotherhood students and opposition groups.

Ahmed Ismail, leader of the liberal Dostour Party student movement, told Egypt Independent that Brotherhood students, before and after the revolution, often do not win the majority seats in classroom elections.

“They usually wait till they see who wins on the classroom level, then they coordinate with them to join the Brotherhood movement,” he said.

Ismail argues that it will be harder for independent students who are winning a sweeping majority for the first time in the student union elections to be attracted by the Brotherhood again.

“Their participation in the electoral process is a reaction of the Brotherhood’s domination at the first place,” Ismail explained.

Osama Ahmed, a student leader from the Revolutionary Socialists, agrees.

“Before the revolution, politically apathetic students were completely marginalized from the process. They neither contested the elections nor voted,” Ahmed explained.

He argued that low candidacy and voting turnout allowed students who have strong organizational capacities, like the Brotherhood and National Democratic Party students, to mobilize their networks.

“It’s enough for the Brotherhood to mobilize 2,000 students from their networks to win the elections. This sham popularity has now ended with this huge participation of the independent students,” he added.

But Mohamed is insisting on dismissing what other secular students call a sweeping victory.

“The elections are not over yet, and it is unethical to count the independent students in one bloc with the politicized ones,” he said.

“Such huge turnout means that students are satisfied with the student bylaws and that it truly represents them. It managed to create a real democratic atmosphere,” Mohamed explained.

But a small example from the results of the Ain Shams University Faculty of Commerce runs contrary to Mohamed’s point.

A student group named A Union without Sheep, a jab at the Brotherhood, which represents students affiliated with the former regime, won 49 seats of 56.

“This time around, retribution against the Brotherhood is a key factor, driving many voters to vote against group,” Ahmed believes.

Yara Mostafa, a leading member in Strong Egypt student movement told Egypt Independent that the student movement learned the lessons of the past.

“Last year, the entire student movement boycotted the elections because they were conducted according to the old 2007 ‘state security bylaws.’ We ended up with ESU completely controlled by the Brotherhood, which issued a bylaw that does not represent us,” she explained.

“We have to change the reality of the student movement. We did this when we managed to create cross-ideological coalitions that aim at finding real solutions to the problems of the students,” she said, referring to a coalition including students from Strong Egypt, Dostour and the Popular Current among others.

Future ramifications

The Brotherhood’s shockingly weak performance in the student elections has observers questioning what this bodes for coming general elections and the group's future.

Amr Abdel Rahman, a political science PhD candidate at Essex University, told Egypt Independent that the Brotherhood’s losses will have a detrimental effect on its power networks in the future.

“Student unions and professional syndicates are the channels that provide the Brotherhood with its strongest social base and the backbone of its power networks,” Abdel Rahman explains.

The Brotherhood, originally a conservative group depending solely on a political class of professional who hold key positions in syndicates and universities, depends on students as its primary source of power, according to him.

“When this channel of support is no longer providing them with the social base that keeps them surviving, this organizational domination will fall apart in the long run,” he added.

But this should not be used as an argument to anticipate a quick loss for the Brotherhood in the upcoming elections, he said.

“There are still many generations within the syndicates that are controlled by the Brotherhood. Losing student union elections means losing the syndicates only on the long run,” he added.

Nagui argues that “students are different. They are naturally against the authoritarian project of the Brotherhood because they are revolutionary and radical in nature."

Ahmed agrees, believing that the students are not disconnected from what happens in the broader Egyptian political scene.

“We can see the general turbulent scene and we know we can affect it,” he said.

Parliamentary elections, according to him, have different dynamics.

“The upcoming elections now are not directly connected with the anticipated erosion of their social basis in the long run. The Brotherhood will still be successful in mobilizing in the absence of real alternatives by secular forces,” he added.

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