CAIRO—At eight o’clock in the morning, modestly dressed in a white jilbab and headscarf, 26-year-old Alaa Nasr leaves her cell in Qanatir Women’s Prison, north of Cairo, with four of her fellow prisoners. They head to a police station an hour and a half away to sit for their university exams.
Alaa is one of hundreds of Egyptian students trying to continue their studies while serving a prison sentence. But conditions for accomplishing that are extremely difficult.
According to Egyptian law, imprisoned students are allowed to complete the work for their degrees, but there are many hoops to jump through to get the necessary approvals from prison administrators and university officials.
In the prison van, Alaa and her colleagues revise their lessons under the close watch of five soldiers and a prison officer. And in the makeshift exam room, there’s an extra pair of eyes too—the female university professor sent to watch over them. “The room was dark and damp, and the prison officers’ sneering looks were really intimidating,” said Alaa.
Last year, Alaa and 78 other students, both men and women, received sentences from one to seven years for setting fire to a building at Al-Azhar University’s Faculty of Commerce, rioting and demonstrating without permission.
“I thought the best way to get over my depression about the prison sentence was to insist on completing my studies with my female colleagues,” said Alaa, who was then in her second year of university. “We were lucky that our studies were theoretical. Others from scientific backgrounds weren’t allowed to continue because their practical exams would have to take place at the college and not in a police station.”
Mukhtar Munir, a lawyer at the Association for Free Thought and Expression (AFTE), says Egyptian law does not specify the ways a prisoner can exercise their right to education, “which opens the door to a lot of inflexibility from the security services.” According to Munir, there are arbitrary delays in distributing textbooks to detained students and supplying the right test forms for them to enter exams. Added to this, some Egyptian faculties and university administrations refuse to recognize the results of imprisoned students’ exams, for no apparent reason.
According to University Under Siege, a study undertaken by the AFTE, 761 students were arrested and sent to prison during the 2014-2015 academic year. Another 523 students were either expelled from university or prevented from taking their exams without being fairly represented at disciplinary councils, according to the study.
The human-rights organization Freedom Seekers Observatory has reported that a number of students were unable to sit for their exams after being arbitrarily detained by security forces. Being arrested without cause like this, forcibly disappeared, and then deprived of their right to take their exams represents a violation of Egypt’s constitutional laws and international conventions, the human-rights group says.
“The prison administration was reluctant to let us work in the prison library,” said Alaa. “What’s more, it has very few books, and most of them are old and unsuitable for many students.” In the 15 months of her imprisonment, Alaa visited the prison library only four times. However, studying in a cell that’s just six square meters and houses 30 prisoners was not easy. “I shared an 80-centimeter-wide bed with a colleague of mine,” said Alaa. “There was nowhere to put my books or even my clothes. Most of the time, I had to study at night when the others were asleep, because I needed calm to concentrate.”
Imprisoned male students suffer even greater harassment. Yaseen Mahmoud, a 24-year-old student at the College of Education’s Department of Chemistry and Nature at Al-Azhar University, was sentenced to three years in prison for demonstrating on campus without permission. After two years of imprisonment, he was still unable to complete his undergraduate studies, as his university refused his request.
“The procedures were so unfair and so unclear,” said Ahmed Mahmoud, Yaseen’s elder brother. After many attempts, and with the support of his family, Yaseen finally got his university’s approval, but the prison administration refused to give him the necessary textbooks.
This reporter tried to see Yaseen in prison, but the request was rejected, as prison officials said only close relatives are permitted to visit.
Last year, Freedom Seekers Observatory began an initiative called “Let Them Take Their Exams” that campaigned for detained students to have the right to sit for their exams. But the initiative, which some government officials have said is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, hasn’t achieved its goals.
Ahmed El-Deeb, the Observatory’s executive director, objected to the accusation of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. “Most of the imprisoned students whose rights we are defending are accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said El-Deeb. “But we do not follow any faction and we defend the rights of all imprisoned students.”
The accusation has weakened the Observatory’s campaign, El-Deeb believes. “The team managers and the young volunteers are not political activists,” he said. “But the fact that we defend the rights of Muslim Brotherhood students limits the movement’s effectiveness due to ongoing harassment by the security services of our volunteers and lawyers.”
Hassan Mahdi, a professor at Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Engineering, does not reject the idea of imprisoned students taking exams inside their faculties, but believes it is not a professor’s job to intervene in primarily legal issues. “If the university administration allows them to take their exams, I don’t think there’s a professor who would refuse that.”
Nonetheless, Yousif Ali, a fourth-grade student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Media, thinks that university administrators fall short in helping the imprisoned students. “Even after their release, those students face difficulties resuming their studies,” he said. “We need to work on changing the university administration’s stance so these students don’t miss out on an academic future.”
Alaa is free now, but her time in prison cannot be forgotten easily. “It was a bitter experience that I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” she said. “I have no idea about my professional future, but I will try to complete my university studies now.”