The battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military since the fall of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi has quickly spread to universities with the start of the academic year in September. On Oct. 31, the transitional government announced a decision to deploy police at Al-Azhar University and the campuses of 22 state universities aiming to stop pro-Muslim Brotherhood student demonstrations that condemned the military ouster of Morsi and called for his return to power. The move was widely praised by the Egyptian media as an appropriate response to students who had stormed the administrative building at Al-Azhar University the day before. However, this ongoing struggle between the military and Muslim Brotherhood supporters on campuses threatens the independence of Egyptian universities.
Most concerning is the possible return of the University Guard, an Interior Ministry force disbanded in 2010 that had cracked down on student political movements and checked academic freedom in recent decades.
The decision to use security forces to curb student protests was arguably the military’s last resort. They had first relied upon independent pro-army students to organize counterprotests against (or to physically attack) protests and marches organized by the “Students Against the Coup” movement, an alliance of pro-Brotherhood students and a few independent and Islamist groups.
However, over the first six weeks, the military failed to build up a student bloc capable of mobilizing support for the military, especially as the more influential liberal and left-wing student movements were reluctant to support either, in the hopes of leaving the door open for a third political option. Although these groups had cooperated with pro-Brotherhood students during the revolution and came together again in the post-revolution efforts to oust pro-Mubarak university leadership, they were against them during the protests that brought down Morsi. And since that experience, these liberal and left-wing student groups have become adamant about remaining neutral.
In the first half of November, the police intervened on various campuses (in accordance with the government’s decision that required either a request from the president of the university for police intervention or permission from the public prosecutor to protect lives and property during protests) to break up student demonstrations at the universities of Asyut, Fayoum, Zagazig and Mansoura. During these interventions, the police used birdshot and tear gas to disperse students. The intervention aggravated tensions in the universities, with dozens of injuries and even more arrests and detentions of pro-Brotherhood students. At Al-Azhar, the confrontation between police and Morsi supporters escalated, resulting in the death of a student on Nov. 20.
The following day, on Nov. 21, the transitional government expanded the police’s right to intervene, removing the previous restrictions (university president’s request or the prosecutor general’s permission), which led to greater use of force by police. On Nov. 28, another student was killed on Cairo University’s campus during a march against the ouster of Morsi.
These developments have not been isolated from the broader struggle in Egyptian society between the Brotherhood and the military. After the Brotherhood had exhausted its energies in the sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda and lost the ability to amass large protests in the main squares, the military authorities kept up the pressure with the arrest of hundreds of Brotherhood members. Universities offered the group a safe area to regroup. The student communities were still brimming with energy as they traditionally reject military intervention in university political affairs and are protective of their freedoms. The Brotherhood looked to its student wing, which is strongest at Al-Azhar, hoping to open a new front to oppose the military, garner student sympathy and ease the burden on the organization.
However, the military authorities were unwilling to concede any foothold to the Brotherhood on campuses across the country, while state security wanted to tighten their control over the universities once again. Meanwhile, voices within certain universities – concerned with the increase in political activity that they declared had no place on campuses – called for the return of the Interior Ministry’s University Guard to campus. For the first time since the Jan. 25 revolution, the confrontation between the military and the Brotherhood has jeopardized what little newfound freedoms student movements gained following the ouster of Mubarak.
A wide range of university groups such as political movements, student unions and independent activists oppose the return of state security control, particularly after liberal and left-wing groups began to feel targeted. This included dispersing protests and arresting left-wing and Dustour Party activists. Students and faculty began mobilizing, with hundreds holding a vigil in front of the Cairo University dome on Dec. 1 to protest the police intervention and demand an investigation into the fatal shooting several days earlier.
The pro-military media has persistently accused the student movements of being led by the Brotherhood, portraying student demonstrations as a Brotherhood conspiracy to disrupt studies. Yet after student demonstrations that included liberal and left-wing protesters, the military seemed somewhat confused about how to respond. At Cairo University, the police left the campus, whereas at other universities they aggressively pursued anti-military protests and made arrests on campus.
Despite attempts to defuse tension, notably during a meeting that took place on Dec. 11 between student union presidents and representatives of the military and Interior Ministry, the government has shown little sign of letting up on its attempts to reestablish security control at universities. As end-of-semester exams approached, the military had yet to take any steps toward resolving one of the key causes of student discontent: student detainees, who number at least 400 according to the Student Freedom Campaign.
The ongoing struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood could deal a serious blow to the freedoms gained after the revolution and bring back Mubarak-era repression to Egypt’s universities.
Mohamed Abdel Salam is a researcher for the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression in Cairo. This commentary, translated from the Arabic, first appeared in Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (carnegieendowment.org/sada).