Egypt’s Universities Step Up Security to Avoid Unrest
Across the grandiose metal-rail fence on the Sudan Street side of Cairo University, Adel, a 52-year-old grocery shop manager stared apprehensively at the trickle of students walking in and out of Egypt’s largest university. The summer has been kind to his business and just a few days before the beginning of classes, the swelling crowds of students make him worry. “God willing the country stays calm when the universities start up,” Adel said. “Last year was chaotic.”
The view among many in Cairo, is that security at the city’s largest universities is a barometer for the country’s security situation.
That perspective was shared by the Minister of Higher Education, ElSayed AbdelKhaleq, and many university heads, who have decided to streamline the security of universities. In a Sunday meeting of the Higher Council for Universities, AbdelKhaleq called on universities to upgrade their security before the new academic year, which was postponed for this purpose. “We will not let anyone or group stall the academic process this year,” AbdelKhaleq said at the meeting. The government and the universities have heavily invested in a new, complex and integrated security system that will blend the use of internal and external security operators, monitoring devices and even bomb detection.
The need to enhance on-campus security is a goal most students and professors agree with. The last academic year saw unprecedented violence and student deaths, with more than 30 students dying during campus-related demonstrations or clashes. “Last year, was shocking to us,” said Maha ElWazir, a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Media and Communications. “There were so many dangerous incidents when we had to evacuate the university. By the end of the academic year, the teaching came to a near standstill.” According to al-Wazir, security screening at campus gates was inadequate.
Preparations have been going on for the better part of the summer. While the prime minister, Ibrahim Mehleb, laid to rest any fears that government police would be reinstated on campus, many of the major universities have intensified their collaboration with the Interior Ministry. Cairo University president, Gaber Gad Nassar, said that he would be hiring retired police generals to intensify security. The university has earmarked 26 million Egyptian Pounds (about $3.6 million) to revamp its security.
Al-Ahram newspaper reported that police will be training 850 members of university security and arming them with plastic batons. At least 150 of these guards will be trained in “swift dispersal.” They will also be increasing the number of female security guards, to make it easier and less intrusive to search women.
Al-Azhar University, which has witnessed some of the bloodiest protests, has announced that it has hired 1,000 additional security personnel for its campuses, which have more than 400,000 students, the most of all Egyptian universities. “The university president however, reserves the right call in police forces (which would constantly be patrolling outside university walls), in the case of any rioting,” said the Al-Azhar University president, Ibrahim Al-Hudud, at a recent press conference. Al-Azhar University has been one of the major sources of Muslim Brotherhood activity. Many believe that the focus of security forces will be to clamp down on the Muslim Brotherhood. The protests organized by the Muslim Brotherhood at the various campuses cost the university around 100 million Egyptian Pounds in 2013/2014.
One of the major areas of focus for campus security will be campus entrances. Al-Azhar and other major universities are installing digitized entry-exit systems. The Higher Council for Universities has authorised the implementation of magnetized ID cards that students will use to enter and exit campuses. Al-Hudhud and Nassar are also spending significant funds to completely enclose universities with higher walls. “I’d hope to see actual professional security,” said Wessam Atta, a fourth-year student of commerce at AlAzhar and a political activist in Gabhet Tareeq Elthawra (The Revolutionary Way Front). “For the past three years, I don’t remember my ID being checked once.” For the first time, Cairo University will also be introducing CCTV cameras around the university to monitor activity and pinpoint troublemakers.
Most major universities are contracting with private security firms to manage entry and exit points to campuses and dorms. A report this week by the daily newspaper, AlMasry AlYoum, said that 15 of Egypt’s top universities had contracted “Falcon,” one of Egypt’s largest private security firms.
Sherif Khalid, the acting manager for Falcon, said that his company would not intervene in on-campus security. His company will staff entry points and check for weapons and other unauthorized materials with metal detectors and other measures.
The enhanced security is welcome to many, but is seen by some as an overture to some infringements on university independence. Students are already banned from demonstrating and protesting on most university campuses, while Cairo University has banned on campus party-related political activity altogether.
University dorms will be under the same intense scrutiny. Al-Azhar and Cairo Universities announced that they would not be accepting as many new students into their dorms. Universities will now ask students to provide their criminal record—or lack of one—before they can move into the dorms.
Many academics wonder if the right steps are being taken to get to the root of violence and unrest. “We all agree there is a major issue with security. We disagree on how to solve it,” said Khaled Samir, a professor in Ain Shams University’s faculty of medicine and a leader in advocating university independence. “Our problems are political and social. The solution is never going to be purely in security,” Samir said.
Samir and others, such as members of Cairo University’s March 9 Group for the Independence of Universities, would like to see more dialogue. “We must fight ideas with ideas,” said Samir.
While Atta agrees that Al-Azhar University is in dire need of enhanced security, he believes that if iron-fist methods are used too much, there is likely to be a backlash. “We feel like there is an intent on the part of security forces to use this security crisis to bring us back to the Mubarak days [when Universities were under the direct grip of security forces],” he said.
At Cairo University, Al-Wazir was encouraged to see police dogs patrol the entrances of the university but feels that if her university enriched student life and participation, the solution could be more long-term.
On October 11, universities will be back in session and the test will begin of whether the new methods will work.