The March 9 Movement Faces New Challenges
CAIRO—The March 9 movement has achieved one of its central goals: to rid Egyptian universities of security forces. Now its members face a broader, more ambiguous fight.
On March 9, 1932, Cairo University’s first president, Lotfi El-Sayed, resigned in protest over the firing of the Faculty of Arts dean and famous man of letters, Taha Hussein. Hussein was dismissed by the government after his book On Pre-Islamic Poetry — which included a literary analysis of the Quran — was attacked by clerics.
Seventy-one years later, when Egyptian professors founded a group to defend academics against political pressure and police interference, they named it the March 9 Movement in honor of El-Sayed’s historic stance on academic freedom.
The group held its first demonstration calling for greater independence for universities in 2005, when only a handful of opposition figures and young activists dared protest publicly against the Mubarak regime. March 9 worked to draw attention to, in particular, the pervasive presence of intelligence and police forces at Egyptian universities, where they interfered in everything from promotions to student union elections to the subjects and attendees of academic conferences. The security services cooperated closely with university presidents — who were appointed by the president and loyal to the ruling regime — and detained and tortured student activists.
In November 2010, just a few months before the uprising against Mr. Mubarak broke out, a group of March 9 professors won a court ruling that the presence of police on campus violated Egyptian law and the principle of university independence.
The hard-fought ruling turned out to be unnecessary. After the revolution, police disappeared from campuses, to be replaced by civilian guards. Students and professors were suddenly able to hold rallies, protests, conferences and free elections.
“The whole country has been liberated from a heavy surveillance system,” says Madiha Doss, a professor of linguistics at Cairo University and another March 9 member. Today, she notes, students linger and chatter freely on campus and she and colleagues hold meetings — some academic, some political — “that we never could have held before.”
“If I want to invite someone on campus, I don’t have to worry about getting permission, I don’t have to worry that they will be stopped at the gate,” says Ms. Doss.
This new freedom has had a price. The new, poorly paid and poorly trained guards haven’t always been able to maintain security. Some students carry weapons, and there have been fights and even deaths at universities.
Recently, the administration of Ain Shems University proposed installing metal detectors and security cameras throughout the university, at a reported cost of 4.5-million Egyptian pounds ($670,000). Newspapers reported that the company that would be contracted to do so is owned and operated by members of the Egyptian intelligence services — raising fears of a return to the “police campus.” After a wave of critical media coverage, the university announced it was only studying security measures and had reached no conclusions yet.
The March 9 movement will mark its tenth anniversary with a conference next month focused on reform efforts. Overcoming the university’s internal dysfunction is a much bigger challenge than protecting it from external threats, says Ms. Doss.
“Once you win the fight against security, once you kick the police out, once the revolution completes what you started…you have a bigger problem,” says the linguistic professor. “It’s an organic problem. The bulk of the university is corrupt and mediocre.” Many professors have “navigated hard times” by engaging in questionable practices: giving private lessons; taking endless sabbaticals without surrendering their posts; not teaching the number of hours they should; assigning their own textbooks and favoring large lecture classes so they can maximize their profits.
“This is a much more difficult fight to engage in,” says Ms. Doss. You’re going against the academic culture, against your colleagues, your dean, “the person you share an office with.”