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Amid More Violence, Egyptian Universities’ Independence Questioned

CAIRO—Violence persisted at Egypt’s universities this week as part of a broader conflict between authorities and student protesters that underscores rights’ activists concerns about obstacles facing independence of the nation’s universities.

On Wednesday, three blasts erupted outside Cairo University, apparently targeting riot police deployed to deal with protests staged almost daily by students. A senior police officer was killed and five others were wounded, Egypt’s state news agency reported. The protest movement Students Against the Coup distanced itself from the attack, cancelling a protest planned for midday at Cairo University. But the incident underscores wider anger at a security crackdown on government opposition.

Over the weekend, two students were killed in clashes with security forces at Al Azhar University, prompting riots on Monday that led to twenty-five students being expelled from the higher-education institution, according to local news reports.

For months, clashes between students and police have persisted at Al Azhar and other universities nationwide as protesters staged demonstrations against Egypt’s interim leaders and in support of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, who comes from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now the situation at Egypt’s universities—which left seven students dead in a single semester last year due to on-campus violence across the country—may be worse than ever, said Kholoud Saber, deputy direction of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, in Cairo.

“The problem is the violence,” Saber said. “When we have this huge number of students killed in three or four months, this is a very bad indication of how we are moving forward.”

In a booklet published last week by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Saber, who authored the document, discussed the importance of university independence and some of the main obstacles it faces in Egypt. Among them are the ways university administrations and state security forces create violence on campus and deal with violence that in some cases already exists as a result of political unrest.

“The kind of solutions they are using to try to deal with Muslim Brotherhood students is making the situation even worse,” Saber said. “So I don’t have any kind of optimistic expectations for the near future.”

Prior to a court ruling in late 2010 that removed security forces from campuses, police presence limited academic and political freedoms. After the ouster of the longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak, months later, students held their first free elections and campuses became places of vigorous political activity in absence of police interference.

But since Morsi was ousted from power last July, those freedoms have diminished. Police have been called onto campuses to disperse demonstrations against Egypt’s current leaders and the former army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted Morsi. In February, a court ruled that police could return to universities.

Authorities claim police interference is necessary to restore campus security and allow classes to continue. But police presence and violence has only fueled more unrest, experts said. On Monday, Al Azhar University authorities said protesters set a fire in a university parking lot and committed other acts of vandalism.

“Those who burned the university’s parking lot, are a paid and deviant group,” Al Azhar University said in a statement published by Ahram Online, an English-language news site.

In the booklet published last week that is a new edition of one first published in 2007, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies advocates against police interference in university life and for administrative, academic and financial independence of Egypt’s universities, said Ragab Saad, a researcher at the institute.

“Any civil society or independent human rights group or organization refuses interference by security services in the universities,” Saad said. “Our situation now is worse compared to before the revolution.


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