Egypt: The police state

Egypt: The police state

Looking at the main gate of the Alexandria University medical campus at eight in the morning, it looks as if it were a queue at airport security. Since the start of the new academic year, the same scene has been repeated every morning.

Students late for their lectures or clinical rounds stand in the crowd that resembles those waiting for the government’s subsidized bread. The delay is not caused by the number of students, but rather by the presence of the University’s security forces appointed by the ministry of interior to guard all universities.

Police officers in sunglasses sit in a shaded room while plainclothes personnel do their job: checking the university cards of each student trying to enter and searching their bags scrupulously.

As students approach the gate, they hear two men clapping their hands and shouting “Cards! Everybody have their university card ready!” The students comply; no one minds pulling a card out of their wallet before entering through the gate. After the students pass in front of the first official, who aimlessly glances at the cards, a second official is immediately behind him to intercept those who are carrying bags.

Students are instructed to open their bags and allow the officials to have a quick look inside. It is not a search in the airport security sense of the word. They’re not looking for weapons or anything of the sort. The plainclothes official simply dips one hand inside the bag and leafs through the papers. When he is satisfied, he allows the students to proceed into the university to begin their day. All the while, the police officers stand by, getting involved occasionally when a student does not have a card to prove he or she is actually a student.

All male students are subjected to this search every morning. For girls, it is rare. Heba, a medical student says “I recall having my bag searched only once. I only saw them searching girls’ bags once; they were two girls wearing the niqab.” Those that have to go through the experience every morning do not protest. They say “They just have a quick look. There’s no need to get into trouble. I don’t want any problems.”

Most students don’t understand what the bags are being searched for, but from the way the papers are leafed through, one assumes they are searching for any leaflets, pamphlets, flyers, or anything of the sort that a student may plan on distributing without permission.

The search policy is by no means new; students were subjected to this sort of thing routinely in previous years. Students have become accustomed to it and open their bags well before they reach the responsible official. Such searches are unconstitutional, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it. Article 41 of the Egyptian Constitution states that “no person may be arrested, inspected, detained or have his freedom restricted in any way or be prevented from free movement except by an order necessitated by investigations and the preservation of public security. This order shall be given by the competent judge or the Public Prosecution in accordance with the provisions of the law.”

But as long as emergency law is in place, this article can be conveniently ignored.

Objection to the presence of the University Guard is not new. In November 2008, the Cairo Administrative Court issued a ruling that banned the presence of police officers on Cairo University’s campus, following a lawsuit filed by Cairo University professors. It was hailed as a victory and a step forward for the independence of universities, and its effect was expected to extend to all universities. The verdict would have seen the university employ civilian personnel as security. However, Cairo University’s administration appealed and in February 2009, the ruling was overturned and to this day the University Guard remains and our bags are searched every morning.