The Egyptian Lesson: How to Strengthen Student Opposition
In the midst of the protest violence and security crackdowns that gripped Egyptian universities this fall, Hazem Hosny, a political science professor at Cairo University, spoke about what could turn out to be an ominous sign for the regime: “I believe that at present a new opposition is being formed, even if it has perhaps not yet fully crystallized…This opposition stands mostly outside the traditional parties and is made up of educated and avant-garde young people who understand what is happening around them.”
His view correlates with the political and social indicators that are pointing in the direction of an inevitable amassing blowback. As the regime clamps down on the universities that seem to be the last visible site of opposition to the regime, it is not in fact, destroying student politics, but dispersing them.
This is part of what Linda Herrera, associate professor at the University of Illinois, has described as Egypt’s wired youth who are “learning culture, forming a generational consciousness and more actively engaging in politics away from schools and adult authorities.”
Despite this, the regime’s attacks on campuses are a worrying trend and a serious assault, although not unusual, in Egypt’s long, vibrant history of student activism. Given the ambitious scope of the current repression, it appears that the period of history the current government wishes to resurrect is that from the late 1950s until the mid-1960s, when campuses were relatively subdued and considerably depoliticised under Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But there is an important difference.
While Nasser used violence and arrests to emasculate student activism, he also could use social and economic leverage that is non-existent in the toolkit of today’s regime. Nasser could boast economic achievements, social reforms and a rise in Egypt’s global standing. He could use them to try to establish the legitimacy of the 1952 revolution that gave him power. He could also boast of free education and employment upon graduation for all students. His administration offered many academics lucrative government positions.
That social bargain is long gone. Although the current government has been able to capitalise on public weariness with instability, it has little to offer except violent force. It is certainly not offering enticing education.
With education itself being dysfunctional, student politics act as a weathervane of socio-political change. They are the pulse of society, introducing new ways of learning, bridging the gaps between academe and society, negotiating with different interests through the harsh terrain that disadvantages them. Student-led violence should not be excused, but seems to result, at times, from heavy-handed security provocation.
The latest statistics do not bode well for the future. Egypt has a baby boom: The number of births per woman has increased from 3 to 3.5 since 2008. According to the Global Competitiveness Report for 2013-2014 issued by the World Economic Forum, Egypt’s primary-school education has been ranked last in the world. So the upcoming generation will sustain and expand the combustible youth bulge. It will move students along the educational assembly line toward the limiting options of universities, which will still be sought after as universities are the Egyptian middle classes’ rite of passage. With many embassies narrowing their countries’ immigration gates, Egyptian young people will have no choice but to focus inwards. They will have to battle a growing despair that will characterise their lives. Today’s conflicts could grow in intensity.
It seems to be a radical idea for the Egyptian government and university administrations to consider actually talking to the students. Instead Al-Azhar has boasted that it spies on its students and other university administrators seem to be regularly threatening their students instead of engaging them. So much for the critical thinking that educators have always urged to be imparted in students.
Reflecting on his predecessor, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat confessed in 1977 that the violence that swept the campuses in the late 1960s, particularly the 1968 riots, and had spilled over into his presidency was the result of “outright oppression” by the Nasser regime. This is not to say Sadat was any better, and he certainly ramped up the arrests of students. However, he understood there is a cumulative effect over the years and generations. This is no small matter when you reflect that Egyptian student politics have evolved from over a century of spearheading anti-colonial and anti-regime sentiments.
One Alexandria University student activist recently told me “The difference between an activist and a revolutionary is that a revolutionary is mentally prepared for prison.” Yet the campus has now turned into a prison, which will help expedite that mental preparation and provide a radical orientation of a new yet-to-be defined politics for the disillusioned students as they quickly find out that every avenue of expression is being closed off.
In a country choked with ironies, the Egyptian regime might just be building up the new student opposition that it is trying to eliminate.
Amro Ali is a PhD scholar at the University of Sydney. He blogs at www.amroali.com and tweets @_amroali