Behind “Students Against the Coup”
CAIRO—Cairo University student Khadijah Ibrahim speaks in code when she talks about student arrests and campus protests on a basic Nokia phone that she said is hard for authorities to track. She isn’t alone in her clandestine ways that help protect her from arrest—or worse.
“Many of my classmates don’t sleep in their homes,” said Ibrahim, after putting down her phone and turning to an interview, cautious of being overheard by other patrons as she sat in a Cairo café. “They meet their families secretly.”
The precautionary measures are taken because a band of university students including Ibrahim are activists with Students Against the Coup, a clamorous opposition movement with a secretive governing body and web of protesting students who continue to foment vociferous unrest on Egypt’s university campuses despite a broader crackdown on opposition.
“We don’t want the military to rule,” said Ibrahim, wearing a colorful headscarf embellished with a reindeer print. “I want to have real freedom.”
The movement sprouted from the tent-filled streets of a sprawling protest camp last summer at Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square. Led by the Muslim Brotherhood, protesters gathered there for weeks to denounce the July 3 coup that ousted the Brotherhood figure, Mohamed Morsi, who governed Egypt for a year before he was unseated and ushered into detention by Egypt’s then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
There were a lot of students at the sit-in, said Youssof Salhen, a spokesman for Students Against the Coup. “We spent a lot of time there and figured out we might be able to organize protests and demonstrations and strikes on campuses when the academic year started.” When it did, protests exploded, continuing almost daily for the past eight months on public university campuses nationwide in opposition to al-Sisi. “We define ourselves as an independent, revolutionary movement that is pro-democracy and anti-coup,” Salhen said.
The use of the word “coup” is, of course, highly politicized in Egypt. A prevalent version of recent events is that the army was simply supporting a popular revolution against a group, the Muslim Brotherhood that was accused of governing the country undemocratically.
Although the Students Against the Coup rose from a setting rife with Brotherhood support, the group is taking a shape of its own. Some members who voted for Morsi for president two years ago said they now have little regard for Brotherhood leadership and would refuse any attempts by any opposition force to reconcile with the government.
“If anyone, any leadership, even if they are the Muslim Brotherhood, dare to do something like this, we are going to refuse it,” said Sarah Yousf, another spokesperson for the movement. “Egyptian people represent themselves everyday by protesting against the military coup. We are going to gain our demands totally and completely without any negotiations.”
The stance underscores what Egypt expert Shadi Hamid said is growing tension between Brotherhood leaders in exile who are gradualist in how they see political change and activists on the ground who are much more revolutionary in their posture.
“They’re not really speaking the language of political processes—reinstating Morsi, electoral legitimacy, reinstating the constitution,” said Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, in Washington, D.C. “It’s much more anti-military, anti-state, and protests until the very end. It’s a much more revolutionary youth posture.”
Students Against the Coup isn’t comprised of Brotherhood supporters alone. Experts and movement spokespersons say it includes leftists and liberals and many students with no political affiliation. Particularly on the youth activist and university level, there is broader opposition against the military and al-Sisi, which brings together not only Brotherhood members but also other Islamists and non-Islamists, Hamid said. Moreover, any opposition group now seeks cross-ideological cooperation since Brotherhood members are most prone to arrest, which could deplete ranks.
“The basic idea now is to avoid being isolated and to build broad-based support on the university level, and I think there has been some success in doing that,” Hamid added.
The diversity of the movement appears to have contributed to its ability to robustly persist in opposition while Brotherhood-led protests elsewhere have waned. The movement also organizes on-campus awareness campaigns, members said. Through photo exhibitions and informal performances on campus lawns, where students reenact arrests or clashes between protesters and security forces, the movement seeks to expose what it sees as abuse of power by authorities. The movement has an unwavering protest strategy and a sturdy public relations front with a media-relations team and student members who say they escort journalists during campus protests.
Members are well aware of the risks. Salhen said the movement is led by an executive board whose members—due to security concerns—are not publicly disclosed. Amid a wider push to quell voices of dissent, police have with the permission of university administrators flooded campuses to disperse demonstrations led by the group, firing tear gas and using live ammunition. As of early April, twelve students had been killed in campus unrest, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and dozens more have been arrested, sentenced to jail and expelled from their universities.
Students Against the Coup appears to be most active at Cairo and Al Azhar universities in the country’s capital, although it plans protests at universities nationwide. Underscoring the ongoing unrest, clashes broke out Sunday night outside Al Azhar University dorms after protesters—organized by the movement—rallied against a decision to move up the date of students’ exams, according to the Daily News Egypt.
Some blame protesters for violence that local news media said has included vandalism, setting cars on campus alight and storming university buildings. Cairo University “will not tolerate students who practice violence and vandalism on campus,” university chairman Gaber Nassar said in statement last month when 23 students were expelled from the university for violence, according to local media.
In early April, a series of bombs appearing to target police deployed to deal with campus unrest exploded outside Cairo University, killing at least one policeman and wounding several other people, state news media reported.
Students Against the Coup condemned the attack. The movement says it is committed to peaceful protest, and that use of violence by security forces is only fueling opposition among students.
“We have students who weren’t against the coup during the first semester then saw with their own eyes the security forces and coup forces break into campuses and kill their colleagues, shoot tear gas bombs excessively, arresting arbitrarily,” said Yousf, who was expelled from Al Azhar University for a semester for boycotting exams. “The coup forces made those who were not against the coup in the first semester be against it in the second.”
But levels of support for the movement are difficult to determine since there is no official membership list and student participation is fluid. “We are very open,” Yousf said. “We are not like a company where we need to conduct interviews.”
Some observers said that despite the noise the group makes, it doesn’t draw overwhelming support. “My feeling is that the numbers that comprise the movement are small and the students don’t succeed in getting the support of the majority of students,” said Mustapha Al Sayyid, a professor at the American University in Cairo and Cairo University, where protests are often held.
Regardless, the group says it is determined to persist until it achieves its demands, which include calls to release imprisoned students and professors, investigate security authorities for student demonstrator deaths and allow students who were expelled from universities for protesting to return to classes. Others said they are simply interested in fighting for the same freedoms and rights they sought during the nation’s 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak.
“We are looking for freedom,” said Nadine Zaid, 19, a first-year Cairo University student who began protesting with the movement last fall. “It’s really hard to see your friends killed in front of you. We are against blood, we are against violence.”
As the protests persist, the question is whether they could lead to broader youth demonstrations, said Michele Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We know a lot of the youth feel discouraged and disenfranchised and they are not seeing gains of the revolution that they were hoping for,” she said. “And this is not just Brotherhood youth but other youth as well. “
“There’s a possibility—I would consider it still a small possibility—that student demonstrations could lead to broader youth mobilization,” she added.
With presidential elections set to take place next month and al-Sisi—who ousted Morsi last year—largely expected to win the vote, it is likely the protests, and attempts to quell them, will escalate. Members of the group, however, aren’t announcing their plans leading up to the poll. “We are always planning for demonstrations, we always have plans,” Salhan said. “But what are we heading to? This is not always declared. We can’t just say everything we are up to.”