As Police Crack Down on Egyptian Campuses, a Recent Court Ruling May Force Reform

As Police Crack Down on Egyptian Campuses, a Recent Court Ruling May Force Reform

 Hassan Nafaa is a frequent critic of the Egyptian government who coordinates several political-reform campaigns.

Because of this, Mr. Nafaa, who is the chairman of Cairo University’s political science department, says the police forces stationed on his campus don’t allow any visitors to his office without a prior written request from him. "I refuse to do this," he says. "I tell all visitors to come through the side gate and not mention my name."

For the last three decades, police forces under Egypt’s Ministry of Interior have been stationed on all national universities. And—say professors, students, and civil-rights groups here—Mr. Nafaa’s predicament is just one example of the police’s unwarranted interference in academic life.

That may change soon, thanks to the perseverance of a group of Cairo University professors who several years ago sued the government, arguing the police presence on campus infringed on academic freedom. In 2008, the courts ruled in the professors’ favor, but the government appealed. Then on October 23, in a final landmark ruling, one of the country’s highest courts found that "the presence of police dependent on the Ministry of Interior on campus violates Egyptian law and the principle of the university’s independence," says Abdel Gelil Mustafa, a professor of medicine at Cairo University and one of the academics who filed the lawsuit.

President Anwar el-Sadat instated official police campus units in 1981, as part of a crackdown on his political opponents. "It was a time of unrest," says Mr. Mustafa, and universities were hotbeds of oppositions to the president. "Hundreds of professors and intellectuals were arrested."

A month after installing the new campus police, Mr. Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists. The security units, which man university gates and have offices within most faculties, have remained in place ever since.

Today, the ruling that might end the police’s presence on campus is "needed more than ever," Mr. Mustafa says.

Egypt will hold parliamentary elections on November 28 and presidential elections in 2011. President Hosni Mubarak, who is 82 and reportedly in poor health, hasn’t announced whether he will run. It isn’t clear who his ruling National Democratic Party might nominate to succeed him, nor how orderly that transition might be.

Mr. Mubarak has been in power for the last 30 years. The country’s uncertain political future has aggravated tensions on campus, with students and faculty members complaining that their basic freedoms of expression and assembly are being denied.

At the moment in Egypt, "there is political pressure for change," Mr. Nafaa maintains, "and the regime is scared. The campus is very sensitive because this is the most active segment of the population, and during a time of mobilization like this, the [government’s] eye will be focused on the university campus."

Violence on Campus

Since the beginning of the academic year on September 18, the Egyptian media and various watchdog groups have documented dozens of acts of violence against students on the part of security forces.

At universities across the country, students who have engaged in mild forms of activism—putting up posters, handing out fliers, gathering signatures—have reportedly been threatened, detained, interrogated, and beaten. Many have also been suspended and referred to disciplinary hearings and to criminal prosecution.

There has been a distinct increase in the frequency and intensity of attacks on students, says Emad Mubarak (no relation to the president), the director of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, which monitors campus affairs and offers legal aid to students and faculty members. "This year, on the first day of classes, there were violent attacks in five universities," says Mr. Mubarak, speaking of attacks by security forces against students. That’s compared with just a few cases of violence throughout last year. "This year we reached the point where security officers put out cigarettes on students’ hands.

"We’re always talking about the university as sacred," Mr. Mubarak continues. "It’s supposed to be the high point of freedom of thought. What’s happening is the opposite—the university is becoming like a police station."

The students targeted by security are affiliated with many different political groups, but all are engaged in calls for reform. Some are members of the banned but nevertheless active Islamist opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood. Others are associated with the former International Atomic Energy Agency director and Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei’s would-be presidential campaign (ElBaradei is ineligible to run for president under Egypt’s current laws).

Moataz Bellah Mohamed and Mostafa Fouad Ahmed are students at Ain Shams University and members of a left-wing student movement formed two years ago in solidarity with workers’ strikes. Their group tried to organize presentations to fellow students about fraud during student elections.

They say their activities were violently disrupted by campus police. Mr. Ahmed has been barred from sitting for his exams; Mr. Mohamed faces criminal prosecution for trumped-up charges, he says, that he attacked other students.

Nonetheless, "we’re intensifying our activities," says Mr. Ahmed, "because of everything that’s happening this year. And for the same reason, security wants to keep us quiet. They don’t want to hear the people’s voice before the elections."

Interference in Academic Life

While it is most often students who are in open conflict with campus security, professors complain that the Ministry of Interior interferes in appointments and promotions. They also say they must obtain permission from campus police to invite guest speakers, travel to conferences, and organize extracurricular events.

In 2005, before Egypt’s last round of elections, academics formed an association that called for re-establishing the independence of the university, and they held demonstrations on campus.

The recent ruling "is a great development, but I am not quite sure that the government will abide by it," Mr. Nafaa says.

The Ministry of Interior has not commented on the allegations of student abuse or the ruling. A ministry spokesman referred The Chronicle to Magdi Radi, the Egyptian Ministerial Cabinet’s spokesman, who says: "What’s frustrating is that we have to respect the ruling, but we have to find a way to maintain security on campuses." According to Mr. Radi, "You have to have some security, but it doesn’t have to be Ministry of Interior or government. It can be private."

Minister of Higher Education Hani Helal told the Egyptian newspaper El-Shorouk that the ruling only applies to Cairo University, but his ministry will put it in place there and possibly at other campuses as soon as it figures out how best to do so. "If we implement the ruling … and the next day Cairo University goes up in flames, who will we hold responsible?" the minister asked. Mr. Helal also described the alleged attacks on students as "a few cases you can count on the fingers of one hand."

"If the ruling isn’t put into effect this will be another violation of the law," Mr. Mustafa adds. He and his colleagues will insist that the court’s decision be applied, he says, even if that means suing university presidents and the ministers of education and of the interior.