Egyptian Court Bans “Unapproved” Campus Protests
CAIRO—After months of persistent political unrest at Egypt’s higher learning institutions, a Cairo court has banned university protests that are not previously approved.
While activists and student political leaders say the move jeopardizes students’ rights and freedoms and may not be practical to enforce, some university administrators say the ruling is necessary for students to finish their exams and complete their studies. The court said its ruling is intended to halt violence.
“We want to encourage students to engage in activity in their society,” Sayed Abd Al-Khalek, president of the University of Mansoura, said in an interview. “However, the university has a mission, which is ending the academic year and organizing exams.”
“Non-stop protests make it impossible for us to do that,” he added.
Since the start of the academic year in September, students at public universities nationwide have embraced a vociferous protest movement against Egypt’s new leaders and in favor of the reinstatement of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who comes from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist leader was overthrown in a widely-supported coup last summer by army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
The protests, however, took a violent turn when protesters – many of them aligned with the Brotherhood – stormed a university buildings last fall, and police were deployed on campuses to breakup demonstrations. Rallies by students from across the political spectrum have continued since, often leading to violent clashes that sometimes resulted in death.
Now, following a recent court ruling that was issued by the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters in late December, students are required to submit a request to a university president’s office before planning a protest. The ruling, a copy of which was obtained by Al-Fanar Media, gives university heads power “to ban any activities that would lead to the sabotage of university priorities, threaten students’ lives and security within the campuses in general.”
“Since the beginning of this semester, the university campus witnessed unprecedented violence that has never happened in Egyptian universities before,” the ruling said. “Many violent protests hindered the educational process and made it impossible for the university administration to operate… Therefore, the court has decided that all the protests must be organized after written and clear authorization from the university president’s office in all the public universities.”
In light of Egypt’s political climate, some say the ruling is not surprising.
Last month, the government officially designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
In November, authorities passed a protest law that restricted off-campus demonstrations, but, for a brief period of time, university demonstrations enjoyed protected status, since they didn’t require permits.
The general public seems to largely welcome the use of repressive measures as necessary for the country to regain stability. Many Egyptians are frustrated with a state of political unrest that for three years has plagued the economy and robbed people of jobs. And they believe the deteriorating economic situation is rooted in ongoing demonstrations that began in 2011, said Hany El Hosseiny, a member of the March 9 movement, which was established in 2004 to fight for the independence of universities.
“The general hysterical atmosphere in the country is affecting the judges,” El Hosseiny said. Judges “take the most negative interpretation of law – the most restrictive interpretation of the law.”
“Most court rulings now are politically oriented,” he said.
For some activists, the court ruling is worrying, and a step back from gains made over the last decade.
“From my point of view this is interference in university autonomy,” said Laila Suef, a founding member of the March 9 movement. “[Judges] should not decide this kind of thing. University councils should decide this kind of thing.”
Even before the court’s decision to ban unauthorized protests, some were concerned that the broader political fight between the military and Muslim Brotherhood threatened universities’ independence.
“Most concerning is the possible return of the University Guard, an Interior Ministry force disbanded in 2010 that had cracked down on student political movements and checked academic freedom in recent decades,” wrote Mohamed Abdel Salam, a researcher at Cairo’s Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, in an article published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in December.
“The ongoing struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood could deal a serious blow to freedoms gained after the revolution and bring back Mubarak-era repression to Egypt’s universities,” he said.
The recent court decision could be the least of activists’ concerns. For one, it remains unclear how universities could ban protests, leading some to question the ruling’s practical use.
“I don’t think this court ruling has any radical application because… it depends on the president of the university,” said El Hosseiny, who is also an assistant professor in the faculty of science at Cairo University. “Would he be able to prevent them from protesting without prior authorization? I don’t think any university president now can prevent any demonstrations in the university.”
“So, what is the actual impact of such a decision? I think it’s nothing,” he said.
In a statement released last week, Mohammed Abdel Samiea, president of Assiut University, said he met with legal and security advisors to determine measures the university administration will take if unauthorized protests take place. But he did not provide further details.
“I just want to stress that it is not easy for the administration of any university to implement such a verdict,” coordinator of the Strong Egypt student movement, Mahmoud Amer, told the Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm.
Regardless, Amer – whose group is affiliated with a party established by a former Brotherhood leader and moderate Islamist, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fatouh – said banning protests on the university campus is a clear violation of student rights. Like others, he believes it will only lead to more protests as some Egyptians seek to defy repression.
“We lived for years with the fact that all protests were one way or another considered illegal, on the whole,” Suef said. “Egypt is back to this way right now.”
But because so many people have been engaged in protests in the public space since the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, “more people are ignoring this kind of law,” she said.