Louder and louder

Louder and louder

The  Muslim Brotherhood is gearing up for a greater role on university campuses, reports Mustafa El-Menshawy

In 2003, Cairo University students belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group placed a large banner on campus welcoming their fellow students back from summer break. The banner was signed “Islamist students”. This week, a group of Brotherhood students put up a new banner promoting reform. The signature at the bottom this time was different; it bluntly said, “Muslim Brotherhood students”. The willingness to directly identify themselves in this manner was a significant change for the group..

A similar dynamic was in play during the nationwide protests that took place at several universities less than two weeks ago, when thousands of student members of the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated for democratic reforms. Previous campus protests organised by the group had, like the banners, merely gathered under the more general Islamist moniker.

Just what the outlawed group, widely considered Egypt”s largest opposition entity, is trying to prove with the newfound approach, and why now, are the two key questions being asked in the wake of the protests.

“We demand an end to restrictions on political activities on campus,” said one of the group”s student members, who would only reveal his first name, Said. The Brotherhood”s demands, he said, also included more political freedoms off campus, including social justice, fair elections, and an abolishment of the emergency law.

During the demonstrations, the protestors raised banners that said, “Together for reform: free university, free country.” A day earlier, they held another protest demanding that the university administration reverse its decision to prevent 200 students from using campus housing for “security” reasons. “I am being prevented from staying at the hostel for unjust reasons,” said a Brotherhood student on condition of anonymity. He said he was being forced to commute to university on a daily basis from his Delta governorate home, since he could not otherwise afford to stay in Cairo on his own.” The student hostel is heavily subsidised.

Prominent Muslim Brotherhood figure Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futuh said the student protests had taken place based on “the recommendation of the group”s leaders”. Abul-Futuh said the group”s aim was to clearly delineate “Brotherhood students from those belonging to radical or violent trends.” The term “Islamist” that student Brotherhood members used to identify themselves with also tends to include individuals from groups like Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, Jihad and the Islamist-oriented Labour Party. Some of these groups were blamed for a wave of terrorist violence in the 1990s.

Brotherhood leaders denied the commonly proffered explanation that the student protests were a form of “muscle-flexing” in the lead up to November”s parliamentary elections, in which the Brotherhood plans to field over 100 candidates. “The students themselves have repeatedly called for revealing their identity as members of the group,” said Abul-Futuh, “but we always refused because we were afraid they would be detained by the police.” Abul-Futuh said the current political climate, with its “increased freedoms and fewer detentions,” had catalysed “the decision to support these demands now”. According to students who took part in the recent Cairo University demonstrations, only two of the protestors were briefly detained.

Diaa Rashwan, an analyst with Al-Ahram”s Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said the Brotherhood had much to gain from the student protests. “It is part of a broader trend in the Muslim Brotherhood ranks,” said Rashwan, an expert on Islamist affairs, “meant to exercise greater pressure on the government to recognise the group by name; simply speaking, it”s an attempt by a group classified as outlawed to gain legitimacy.”

Whether or not that is true, the Brotherhood clearly feels more emboldened about having both a louder voice and a stronger presence on campus. Cairo University is now dotted with Brotherhood banners as the group prepares for upcoming student union elections. According to the weekly Rose El-Youssef magazine, the Brotherhood has earmarked enough money to field numerous candidates in these campaigns. The group has long slammed student union elections as “rigged”, marred by security interference, and marked by the exclusion of popular Islamist-oriented students. “We want to change that situation,” said Abdel-Rahman El-Saidi, an Alexandria University-based member of the group.

The Brotherhood”s increased presence also appeared to mobilise students from other groups. Inspired by the bolder Brotherhood stance, student members of the Islamist-oriented Labour Party are now planning to increase their campus activities as well. Students from socialist groups as well as more recently formed reform movements like Kifaya have also formed a coalition to press jointly for their demands. Aida Seif El-Dawla, a leading member of the Kifaya movement, joined the Brotherhood”s Abul-Futuh at a press conference this week declaring the formation of a student coalition. The speakers highlighted that the newly cooperative atmosphere stems from a clear understanding that only collective efforts would yield results.

“Although we disagree with the Brotherhood,” said George Isaac, the coordinator of Kifaya, “the students belonging to each group have to work together for a better situation on campus overall.” Isaac compared the current dynamic to the glory days of Egypt”s student movement in the early 1970s and early 1980s, when demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of students protested against the harsh economic conditions prevalent at the time. These demonstrations catalysed late president Anwar El-Sadat”s decision to push through a new law preventing students from taking part in political activities, including confining their demonstrations to campus grounds.

Some are worried, however, that the revived student movement may also signify a rise in more militant Islamism on campus. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, most non-state interference in university affairs actually comes from Islamist militants, whose political activism is religious driven. “This group intimidates professors and students through a variety of tactics, including litigation and physical assaults,” said the report, entitled The Repression of Academic Freedom in Egyptian Universities.