CAIRO—A Cairo University student, Mohammed Abdel Khalek, was pulling up in a metro car to a station near the university, planning to buy a book on campus that would help him with his next exam. Instead, he was arrested and swiftly imprisoned.
He said was caught in the crossfire of clashes on that day last winter. When the doors on his metro car opened, he witnessed the chaotic aftermath of a demonstration. “I found a lot of people there running from police,” Abdel Khalek said. “I didn’t understand what was going on.”
After his arrest, Abdel Khalek spent most of the next eight months jailed at a Central Security Forces camp and later, in Egypt’s Wadi Natroun and Tora prisons. He was accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, of demonstrating illegally, of killing two students and of attempting to kill another one, according to his account.
In September, he was released with the help of the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, which lawyers, university students and recent graduates founded last year to provide legal support and fight for rights of minors and students.
The firm was established in response to an ongoing state-led crackdown on dissent that has hit universities and led to a spike in arrests, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances—cases where people are held by the state without information made public about their whereabouts.
The organization’s team has taken on other cases like Abdel Khalek’s as a registered law firm working on cases related to human rights violations at no cost to those in need, said Mohamed Elbaker, who co-founded the organization.
With five staff members and 40 volunteers, it has teams inside universities who observe rights violations such as cases where students are expelled or barred from living in dorms, said Amr Khilany, an Ain Shams University student who oversees the teams.
In terms of rights violations by the state, the organization commonly sees cases of what it views as arbitrary arrest, Elbaker said. In one striking sweep last fall, authorities arrested 176 students—who were also activists—at sunrise from their homes across eight Egyptian districts on the first day of the semester. While some of them have since been released, others remain in prison, Elbaker said.
The arrests took place amid broader security efforts to crush opposition following the 2013 ouster of Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi. To help combat the unrest, police—who were expelled from campuses in 2010—were welcomed back to universities, often leading to student arrests and in some cases violent student deaths. Police have also been injured in university clashes and killed nationwide by militant violence.
Academics say other moves made by the government have reversed gains made toward university independence, including a 2014 decree that gave Egypt’s president power to appoint top university leaders. Among the latest list of grievances is that authorities canceled student union elections this month, citing “legal reasons.” More recently, students denounced widespread administrative negligence at educational institutions.
Students and faculty members fear that government interference may be creeping into the classroom. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression expressed concern this week about challenges university faculty members now face, including interference in their teaching and academic research. “This comes under the general atmosphere of the deteriorating situation for academic freedom and independence of universities,” the organization said in a statement.
Sayed Abdel Ghany, a Cairo University student and head of the Strong Egypt party student movement, said the country will not develop unless students have more freedoms. “It has to start from the universities,” he said.
At the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, Elbaker and Khilany said there are dangers in fighting for student rights and that they are aware of the possibility that they themselves could be arrested. To limit unwanted attention, the group has worked for eight months in a nondescript residential building downtown, in an office without a sign. But they say they aren’t fearful to push ahead with their work.
“If we take a step back during a time of abuses, we would be taking a step back at a time when we have to take a step forward,” said Elbaker.
Abdel Khalek, the freed student, says he has no interest in being an activist.
Sitting in the Adalah center’s office almost six months after his release, he said many Egyptians participated in the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak and protests against Mohamed Morsi’s 2013 ouster “demanding freedom and a better life—not just for us, but for all people.”
“Now,” he said, “I just think about my future, individually.”