What is the Outlook for the Academic Year in Egypt?
I do not have an answer for this question, which I picked as a title for this commentary. It appears that no one knows precisely what is happening in Egypt today. So how could we know what will happen later?
Despite that, I will try to present a humble reading of a group of indicators, which emphasize that the new academic year seems “vague” in the most optimistic view and “on the edge” in the most pessimistic view.
The problem doesn’t only lie in trying to answer the shallow question of “How do we face the Muslim Brotherhood students,” which the Egyptian government seems to believe is of utmost importance. But it involves answering a much deeper and a more complicated question, which is “How does the university deal with youth who are suppressed and not included in the political process?”
Officials insist on reducing the problem to a simple confrontation between the Brotherhood and the state. That’s why they have taken a number of decisions, which they thought would beat the Brotherhood students and end the problem. The government started expanding its authority over education by issuing a law appointing university administrators, which clearly violates the constitution that articulates the “independence of universities.”
Appointing university presidents and administrators has become a personal presidential decision. This was followed by random targeting of students, where in Cairo University alone tens of students were expelled—among them were three female students from the faculty where I teach—without any formal investigation. This was an abuse of the most basic rules of justice.
Then came the decision to raise fees for staying in university dorms, perhaps under the belief that the Brotherhood students are the only students who belong to the less fortunate classes and thus this would keep them away from the dorms!
There was also the decision to postpone the academic semester more than once. First to the third week of Septmeber and then to October 11. This means that the duration of the first semester will be only two months and that education quality standards are moving gradually to becoming ink on paper.
Meanwhile, there is the insistence on a new regulation that restricts independent student activities and allows no space for student freedom. Seventeen out of a total of 20 university unions have objected to this regulation.
Here I have to point out the terrible effects of the new law of appointing university administrators. The presidents of some universities have just been appointed even though the new academic semester is close. And the case is the same for dozens of university deans, which reflects a mixture of confusion, chaos and encroachment on independence.
After all these examples, how can we predict the new academic year?
First, university is not just a class where information is handed from a professor to a student and between them is an administrative apparatus. A university should have integrated interaction between the owners of different scientific degrees and life experiences in an area that is free, safe and independent. Academics and students should be free to practice activities of all kinds whether artistic, literary, religious or political, with some controls that define the relationship and adjust it in the framework of what is recognized internationally.
“Safe” means that no one inside this system faces psychological, physical or emotional harm due to his views and positions inside or outside the campus. “Independent” means that the university does not become a tool in the hands of authority (any authority) for public mobilization. These concepts are unfortunately gradually fading now in Egypt. The area of university freedoms has shrunk and what remains of it is a small margin that we hope does not get lost.
And speaking of safety, the Egyptian universities have unfortunately become an arena for settling political problems. Although independence is clearly protected by the constitution, the actions reported above illustrate the size of violations against the constitution adopted popularly and politically by an overwhelming majority a few months ago.
Second, because of the security mentality in running the political scene in general, and the university scene in particular, the students, whether supporters of the Brotherhood or opponents of the current regime as well as the Brotherhood—a category that is always not mentioned—have become very irritable. This is especially true because of the strong signals that restrict their different activities by an authority that doesn’t communicate with them, but rather oppresses them. We are therefore facing an unusual situation that may explode in fresh violence or in the form of increased withdrawal from the university environment and public work altogether.
Third, university professors are not in a better position. In addition to their financial and social burdens, some of them still pay the price of their political positions. Others who have not been harmed yet know that they will be sooner or later. And in addition to the cases of communal and political polarization, there is the emptiness of the educational environment scientifically, morally and materially—buildings and teaching aids.
Fourth, while some of the actions of some Brotherhood students are unacceptable, rejecting and condemning those actions should not be employed to foment violence. Targeting students for just being a member of the Brotherhood is unacceptable and solving the crisis can only be through discussion, containment and respecting freedom of expression.
Fifth, I strongly reject the politicalization of the university, but does this mean that we ban political activities? Does this mean repeating the words of the failed Mubarak regime that politics is just for learning, but not for practicing? What is the definition of political activities then? After the revolutions and popular uprisings, politics can never be banned inside the Egyptian universities.
What is the solution?
Finding solutions is the responsibility of the authorities, especially if it is responsible for creating the problem or more precisely for the accumulation of problems. The solution lies in restoring respect for the constitution and reconsidering the law of appointing university leaders according to the international standards that the authority keeps on praising but does not apply.
A university code of ethics should be set by a committee of professors concerned with university affairs, along with a number of current university leaders, representatives of the Supreme Council of Universities and students. This committee could reset the regulations for university activities in parallel with political decisions to release the students who are imprisoned with no proof of involvement in violence. And there is also a need to conduct serious neutral investigations in the incidents of student killings inside the campus.
Of course this requires the achievement of transitional justice in the country, solving the political and security crises in succession and the adoption of debate and negotiation as principles to deal with objections. In fact, there are many solutions but they all require political determination. Is it available? That is the question that should not be lost in the midst of the details.
* Ahmed Abd Rabou is an assistant professor of comparative politics at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo.