Students object to minister’s intervention in university bylaws

Long-standing government intervention remains an obstacle to reforming the organization and makeup of university student groups, giving high ranking government officials more influence on their structure than the students themselves, activists tell Egypt Independent.

Over the past few months, the High Council for Universities (HCU) decided to allow student unions to approve new bylaws that would guarantee a more free and unencumbered regulation of student life and activities on campuses, before they sent them to Parliament to be approved. After meeting with the Minister for Higher Education on 26 February, the HCU decided to put forth new bylaws drafted by a joint advisory council from the HCU and a group of public university student representatives for consensus or approval at universities and await the verdict from student unions before proceeding with approving the laws on a parliamentary level.

The bylaws were initially endorsed in the aftermath of a meeting held in October 2011 between the HCU, and Egypt’s Coalition of Student Unions (ECSU). Many criticized the meeting, which was reportedly held in the presence of a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as being held in an atmosphere that encouraged government intervention and was not very representative of student bodies since most members of the ECSU were appointed after hasty elections in March 2011 that saw a low student voter turn-out. Many of those who won were the same students who ran the unions before the revolution, when state-security approved students based on their political affiliation.

The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) produced a report criticizing the entire process behind producing the bylaws, claiming that the Minister of Higher Education, Hussein Khaled, should not be party to the writing process of these bylaws to begin with. Khaled had stated that he would endorse these bylaws in late February.

“The bylaws were actually endorsed in stark violation of all laws and the student’s right to self determination and participation in decision making concerning campus affairs,” an AFTE report said.

“The situation regarding the bylaws has not changed much. They produced these new bylaws behind closed doors, with the same pseudo-representative bodies,” said Fatima Sirag of the AFTE.

Opposition groups purport that the relation between students and law-makers in implementing the regulations should be more direct. “Student unions should be handing in the regulations they decide on directly to Parliament since there is no president,” said Mohamed Lasheen, a member of the Free Students of Ain Shams University.

As a way to counter the view that the Ministry for Higher Education is infringing on students’ rights to decide on the bylaws, Khaled met with student representatives in late February to inform them that they are allowed to go back to their student bodies to reach a consensus on the bylaws before their implementation. Student unions would also be allowed to delay elections until their student bodies approve the laws, after the laws are explained to them.

Ahmed Anany, a final year dentistry student at Ain Shams University and member of the Egyptian Democratic Party Youth Committee, attended the meeting with the minister and said that Khaled did not take criticism of his role in producing the bylaws well. “[Khaled] said that if it was not lawful for his ministry to be proposing the bylaws, he can get a letter from the SCAF tomorrow to formalize his role,” Anany said.

Some student activists would like to find consensus among the entire student body first. Members of the Alexandria University Faculty of Medicine student union collectively resigned in protest of the minister’s intention to endorse the bylaws through a ministerial decree without a nationwide referendum among students.

Moreover, some argue for the right of some student groups to be part of the decision making process. “Political groups and activist students who were most affected by the repressive regulations should have a say in the new proposals,” Sirag said. Student union representatives believe that this would be counterproductive, allowing for unrepresentative student groups with small memberships a higher than normal say in the new regulations.

“This would be unfair to student unions who were democratically elected,” said Mohamed Abdullah, president of the Cairo University Student Union. He added that, in any case, given the minister’s current stance, all students would get a say in the new regulations either way.

Along with opposing the manner under which the bylaws were set, opposing student groups saw major faults in the laws themselves. The minister-endorsed proposals contain many of the same pitfalls and exclusionary clauses of the Mubarak-era regulations, according to opposition groups. For one, current bylaws stipulate that any member of a student union must have paid student union fees before running for office.

“I went to pay the LE1.5 in student union fees and found that accounting offices have no separate method of paying for that. Meaning that students had to effectively have paid all university fees, which includes student union fees, before running for office,” Anany said. Critics say that this clause excludes poorer students — who aren’t able to pay all their fees upfront — from running.

Moreover, student activities may still be regulated by student unions through a loose set of regulations that would leave a lot of leeway for intervention. “Besides announcing any activity five days in advance, student unions would be able to reject the activities if it went counter to the traditions and customs of the universities. These traditions and customs are not written anywhere and open to interpretation,” said Anany.

Proponents of this clause claim that it is just a clause that restricts the student unions’ ability to curb freedom of speech on campus. “It needs a two-thirds majority. We made sure it was two-thirds because that would mean that there was a true majority that opposed the activity,” said Amr Ibrahim, a fourth year architecture student and general secretariat for student rights in the Ain Shams student union. As part of the ESCU, Ain Shams student union heads are generally in favor of the current system. 

“We cannot curb any political activities with this law. We can just make sure to rid our universities of events that include hateful rhetoric and activities that would gravely disrupt student life against the will of a majority of students,” said Abdullah.

The method under which they would reach the student-level consensus is still vague and unclear. “We will hold an open conference explaining the bylaws and get a sense from this conference on whether students generally approve them or not,” said Abdullah.

Not everyone sees the bylaws as part of an overall executive scrutiny over universities.

Abdullah, who attended the February meeting with the minister, contends that since the revolution, his student union has operated with minimal state intervention in its activities. “That’s not to say that other universities might not have been subject to intervention,” he added.

Some groups have reportedly handed in their proposals for new bylaws to the student unions. They were not able to reproduce their new bylaw suggestions, and all official student union members interviewed denied receiving any full proposals. “We handed in proposals that would change the penal code for students within the bylaws. It would also allow for wider participation in student life,” Lasheen said.

For now major public universities such as Cairo University, Ain Shams University and Helwan University announced that they will delay student union elections until the new bylaws are approved and passed in Parliament. The dates under which this process would be implemented and when/if new elections for the coming year’s student bodies would be elected are very vague and unclear. Most student union representatives indicated that a definitive consensus on the bylaws — or lack thereof — would be reached in around a month’s time.

As it stands now, the HCU would hand these proposals to Parliament with Khaled’s blessing. 

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