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Al-Azhar Students Test the Legal Limits of Protest In Egypt

The past week has been a tumultuous one at Al-Azhar University: A student was shot and killed after security forces stormed a dormitory, 38 students were sentenced to prison, and a running series of protests are disrupting campus life and, at times, education itself.

All of this is taking place against a volatile political backdrop in which the government has begun to require that protests get official permission, and protesters are testing the boundaries of what looks to them like a ban.

The state’s reaction to student protests, both now and earlier in the month, is drawing heavy criticism.

A report released by the non-profit, independent Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression said that the period from November 9 to 14 was the “worst and the most dangerous ever” since the beginning of the revolution, and has threatened students’ freedom and universities’ independence.

“This week saw all kinds of violations,” said the report, “as security forces attacked the university campuses, throwing tear gas bombs and gunshots which caused dozens of student injuries.”

The report highlighted a sharp increase in the number of suspended university students, including heads of student unions, for their views opposing the military-backed government. Moreover, some students were suspended without even being called in for questioning, the report said.

“The violations crossed all boundaries,” the report said, “when the police officers detained students from the university campus and arrested others from their homes.”

On Tuesday this week, scores of Al-Azhar University students began a week-long strike and did not let other students in their classes at the Education College, in a protest for security forces storming the university dorm on November 20, which caused the death of a student.

Abdul Ghany Hamouda, a student at the medical faculty at Al-Azhar University, was shot dead by bird shot. Hamuda was from a poor family in Behira, Egypt’s northern province. Students threw petrol bombs, bricks and stones at security forces, who replied with tear gas and shotguns.

The vice president of the college’s student union, Ahmad Morsi, said the protest calls for releasing arrested students. The students marched around the campus chanting slogans to “glorify the martyrs” and demanding freedom for those detained.

Security forces closed the university’s gates to keep the protest on the campus and to prevent students from clashing with security forces deployed outside the university campus.

A day earlier, Egyptian security forces fired tear-gas and dispersed on-campus protests by students at Al-Azhar University who were defying the controversial law passed on November 24 that human rights groups claim “severely curtails the right to protest.”

The protest on Monday was the first to be dispersed by police in accordance with the new law that prohibits any protests without the approval of the interior ministry. The law stipulates that organizers must notify any nearby police station of all details of the protest, including its movement, the number and names of participants, and slogans that will be chanted.

“How come I must get an approval to protest from the agency or sector that I am protesting against,” said Mohamed Adel, a founding member of April 6 movement, a youth activist group that was started in 2008. “It does not make any sense.”

Asked whether this law includes on-campus protests, Gamal Eid, the director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said “On-campus protests are supposedly not included, but since the law is vague, it is likely to be applied to such specific protests”.

Students arrested even before the law went into effect are also feeling the effects of the government crackdown.

On November 21, the Cairo Misdemeanor Court sentenced 38 Al-Azhar University students to a year-and-a-half in jail over charges related to causing riots during clashes with security forces in October in Cairo’s eastern neighborhood of Nasr City.

As reported by Al-Fanar Media earlier, the court also sentenced 12 Al-Azhar students to 17 years in jail over charges related to off-campus protests, sentences that drew surprise from human-rights lawyers. The students are appealing those sentences.

Egypt has undergone some of the worst civilian violence in decades after the army, prompted by mass protests, ousted the country’s first elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, on July 3. The government has since introduced a political roadmap that would lead to new elections next year.
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