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Looking Behind the Egyptian Student Protests

CAIRO – Clashes erupted between police and student protesters supporting ousted president Mohamed Morsi at Al Azhar University in the capital as military-backed authorities continued a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Street protests elsewhere in Egypt have largely subsided, but campus clashes at Al Azhar and other universities remain front-page news.

The campus of Al Azhar, an icon of Sunni Islam, has been a key point of political friction and the site of a series of protests. Muslim Brotherhood supporters have a stronghold in the student body and the police and military have been reluctant to enter campus, lest they be accused of restraining academic freedom. Indeed, a 2010 Egyptian court order forbade interior ministry police from campus grounds. But that order has been tested by a string of student protests.

“Our goal is to put the current police government under daily pressure and expose its repression policies, to open the people’s eyes and start a new revolution against the coup and to restore our revolution, which was stolen by the army,” said Suhaib Abdel-Maksoud, national spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood Students, in an interview.

“Student movements are the only hope to restore democracy to Egypt,” he said.

In spite of the violence and security pressures that have crippled the Brotherhood, the group’s students like Abdel-Maksoud have defiantly continued a vociferous protest movement at Egypt’s higher-education institutions.

Some security officials expressed a reluctance to engage in too harsh a crackdown on the students. “We do not want the Muslim Brotherhood youth to turn violent, and arresting them is not a solution,” said a security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “In the end they are young people who were brainwashed by their leader.”

“We are seeking to adopt other policies to distance them from the group in order to protect them from the group’s plan to sabotage Egypt,” the official said, without providing further detail.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was founded by a schoolteacher and Islamic scholar in 1928 and has long penetrated the nation’s education system, from which it has recruited youth. The organization rose to power following the 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, sweeping elections and propelling Morsi, who comes from the group, to success in the nation’s first free presidential election.

Then, after millions of opponents took to the streets in June to protest against Morsi, Egypt’s army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi pushed Morsi aside in early July, suspended the 2012 constitution and installed a new government while promising to hold fresh elections. A committee that includes academics is drafting a new constitution that is supposed to go up for popular referendum this year.

Over the past four months, authorities have sustained a broad crackdown on the Brotherhood as part of what it says is an effort to battle terrorism.

Essam El-Erian, deputy head of the group’s political wing, was detained, becoming one of thousands of Brotherhood members and leaders who have already been arrested. That arrest appeared to be part of what was powering recent protests.

“It is very important for them that they keep the street hot,” said Said Sadek, a political sociologist and professor at the American University in Cairo. “It puts a lot of pressure on the government.”

Analysts say part of the strategy is also to rally the Brotherhood’s base in an effort to keep it united and prevent infighting over who is to blame for the group’s current situation. Others say that with so many of its leaders in jail, the group is lost and doesn’t know what to do besides take to the streets in opposition to the coup.

The Brotherhood needs to reinvent itself, Sadek said, “but I don’t think at the present moment they can afford it. They don’t have the time or luxury. They are in the middle of a battle now.”

At Al Azhar, students appeared to be taunting the military and police to come on campus and then complaining the minute that they did. Egypt’s universities sought to become free of state control under Mubarak. A group called the March 9 movement fought successfully for greater autonomy and freedom from state security. But that has left the universities protected only by untrained, unarmed guards. Ultimately the Al Azhar administration requested police protection on the campus to protect “souls and properties” and a warrant was issued allowing them to enter.

Police fired tear gas at protesting students at Al Azhar, situated in the core of the sprawling capital. Photographs of the aftermath of the protests showed that a key administrative building had been badly damaged, with holes knocked in its walls. Student protesters left the building littered with debris and smashed equipment. Administrators estimated the damage at 10 million Egyptian pounds, about $1.4 million.

Meanwhile, at other public higher-education institutions nationwide, including Cairo University, protests have persisted since the start of the academic year in September.

The unrest is not limited to Brotherhood students. Abdel-Maksoud said they are working through an alliance called Students Against the Coup, which he said includes hundreds of students from various political forces, including some liberal groups.

The protests are comprised of “a combination of the Brotherhood and young frustrated Egyptians,” said Khalil al-Anani, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. “The first dimension of this movement is that they don’t have structure or organization hierarchy that can be easily suppressed or faced, but they are just a network of young Egyptians who feel frustrated with what’s happening,” he said.

Yet, Abdel-Maksoud said the group’s students are “working under tremendous pressure” from security and are being monitored. More than 150 students at Al Azhar alone have been arrested, he said, although some of the main student leaders continue to operate.

Meanwhile, in the midst of demonstrations flaring up on its campus in Giza near Cairo, Gaber Nassar, president of Cairo University, said security solutions will not solve the problem of protests.

“We cannot use violence against our students even if some of them did,” Nassar told Egyptian media. “The only option we have is contain them, tell them that they are heard, and start a serious dialogue with them. Excluding them or suspending them will not solve the problem and will not stop the protests.”


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