CAIRO–First many Egyptian youths boycotted the national parliamentary elections. Then students shied away from their own student-union elections, making complete their refusal to take part in the country’s political life.
“The current political situation contributes to deepening the state of mistrust or lack of interest in any elections,” said Wissam Ata, a researcher with the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. “Many students believe that those who would win the seats are the ones whom the regime wants.” He pointed to the state of frustration overwhelming students because of the arrests, disciplinary actions and dismissals that affected many of them last year.
“Today, many students stay away from other students’ activities to avoid engaging in political, disciplinary, or security clashes with security forces or the college administration,” he added.
The student elections came more than two years after the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. Many students won office simply because they had no competitors. “The halt of elections decreased students’ awareness about their importance,” said Maged Fathi, a third-grade student in the information and computer science faculty at Mansoura University. He was one of the students who won simply because no one ran against him.
Israa Tariq, a third-year student at Cairo University’s law faculty, agrees with Fathi. “It is only natural that there was poor participation in these elections. In the Faculty of Law, only 570 students out of 7000 students voted,” said Tariq. She said she herself does not really understand the elections’ significance. “I have not witnessed any student union elections since I joined the university three years ago,” she said.
Some student organizations have officially boycotted the elections. The movement called “Students Against the Coup” started a boycott of the student-union elections. In a statement, the group said the student elections were “more naive than the parliamentary elections and in a much worse environment, and involving a great deal of insult to the students and their rights.”
The elections were held in 24 public universities in the various Egyptian governorates in order to form a union in each college, composed of a president, a vice president, and seven committees, with each committee made up of eight seats, two for each academic grade in the college, so that there will be 56 seats representing the college students’ union.
According to the Ministry of Higher Education, 22,996 students were candidates. Still, administrators excluded 2,525 students for various reasons, including a lack of previous student activism that the administrators said was necessary to qualify them as candidates. (Egypt has an estimated million and a half university students, so the number of candidates is high, even with lackluster interest in politics.)
“There is no definite explanation for this law item that is used in some colleges to refuse or accept some of the students’ nominations applications, which had happened with me,” said Reem Mohammed, a fourth-grade student in the pharmacy faculty at Cairo University. “They have refused my nomination despite the fact of my having activities in students exhibitions and seminars,” she said. “I appealed my rejection, but the appeal has also been rejected.”
Despite the students’ failure to stand as candidates and to vote, some students were enthusiastic about the elections.
“The most important goal for the coming period is to raise students’ awareness of the importance and role of the [student] union, which is the real mouthpiece representing the students,” said Islam Jaafar, head of the student union in the faculty of engineering at Zagazig University. Jaafar explained that he hopes to distribute a questionnaire to students to evaluate all aspects of the educational system, including lecture halls, laboratories, faculty members, scientific curricula, teaching methods, as well as the students’ dormitories, sports and cultural places, and to display these results to the college board, an administrative body of professors from different faculties, so as to improve the educational system.
Ali Kamal, the head of students’ union in the education faculty at Suez Canal University, believes in the union’s role in the development of the educational system only if its role is active and not marginalized.
“Besides our role in communicating students’ problems and their perspective to the college board, we have to work to amend the current law and get a stronger one that cannot be changed except by parliament,” said Kamal referring to the fact that the higher-education minister can currently dissolve the union.
Ata, from the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, is less optimistic. “I expect a shift in the activities of unions towards arts, sports, and cultural events and away from the political ones,” he said. But he does not see this shift in the nature of activities as entirely negative. “The existence of unions’ activities is much better than halting their work completely, as happened before,” he said, “or than the spread of violence on campuses.”