By Abdelhalim Abdallah
CAIRO, October 21, 2014 (AFP) – As the new academic term began in Egypt, riot police were standing guard at Cairo’s universities to quash any repeat of Islamist-led protests that turned campuses nationwide into battlefields.
The authorities have tightened security at 12 leading universities across the country — the last bastions of protests backing ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi after a nationwide government crackdown crushed his supporters, leaving hundreds dead and thousands jailed.
About 16 students were killed in the academic year that ended in April, as pro-Morsi students fought pitched battles with security forces after the Islamist was ousted in July 2013 by then-army chief and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Universities echoed with slogans like “Sisi is a killer!” as pro-Morsi students threw rocks at tear-gas-firing policemen.
Today, the newly painted buildings of the prestigious Sunni Al-Azhar University and Cairo University are surrounded by tall metal fences, with private security guards checking students’ identities as they pass through metal detectors.
The new security measures ban all partisan activities on campuses and university officials are allowed to expel disruptive students.
Several students AFP approached at Al-Azhar refused to comment, while some at Cairo University offered only brief remarks — clearly reflecting the tension on the two campuses.
“Last year was a mess, with tear gas being fired inside the university. But now there are much fewer protests and it’s much safer,” said Noha Ezz al-Arab, a third-year English literature student, as she waited to pass through a metal detector at the gate of Cairo University.
Fear for freedoms
“Last year we couldn’t sit for a minute. We were always expecting something,” a security guard at Al-Azhar told AFP, as police vehicles with wailing sirens circled the university and masked police carrying batons and tear gas grenade guns stood inside the campus itself.
Student leaders fear the new security measures could affect their overall campus activism.
“We hope the new regulations will not limit freedoms and non-partisan political activities on campuses,” said Ahmed Khalaf, a member of the Cairo University Student Union.
Students also complained that the new restrictions are curbing their movement on campuses.
“They stopped me from entering, saying that engineering students are not allowed” inside Cairo University’s main campus, said Hossam Khalid, whose faculty is located outside the main university grounds.
“They probably think we are terrorists.”
There has already been some minor unrest.
The interior ministry said five universities saw protests a day after the new school year started on October 11, including at Al-Azhar and Cairo University, where protesters destroyed metal detectors.
At least 110 students were also arrested at their homes, many of them in pre-dawn raids last week, rights groups say.
In some cases, Egyptian security forces are using “excessive force” in quelling protests, rights group Amnesty International said in a recent statement.
It said dozens of protesting students were injured last week when police swiftly crushed their rally at Alexandria University.
New protests vowed
Students backing Morsi say they are undeterred by the new security measures.
“We were expecting these measures, but they will not affect our movement and we will take extra precautions,” said Youssef Salhen, spokesman for Students Against the Coup, a pro-Morsi group blamed for most of the campus violence last year.
“If our protests are not more frequent than last year, they will definitely not be less. Protests can’t be stopped inside universities because universities are meeting grounds for youth, especially given the protest law.”
Egypt’s authorities in November 2013 adopted a law that bans all demonstrations except those authorised by the police.
Dozens of secular activists have also been arrested and jailed for holding illegal rallies since its adoption.
Officials say the new security measures are already showing results.
“The new private security guards have done their job of maintaining security at the gates… and from their first day, they found many knives and firecrackers that were being smuggled inside,” Cairo University chairman Gaber Nassar told AFP.
Nassar, who blames Morsi’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood for campus violence, said if the new measures fail the consequences would be serious.
“It could lead to suspending the school year or even the return of police on Cairo University campus, which will jeopardise the independence of the university,” he said.
Student activists say new protests cannot be ruled out given the anger among supporters of the Brotherhood.
“Pro-Brotherhood students are angry that their friends and colleagues are either imprisoned, wanted by the authorities or suspended from university. These students will continue to protest,” said Khalaf of the Cairo University Student Union.