A group of anti-coup Egyptian students gathered outside Cairo University chant slogans during a protest on October 20. Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
On Saturday, October 11, the new Egyptian school year began, and with it came a new wave of clashes between the student protest movement and the state. In fact, the police didn’t even bother for school to officially start, with some young activists being pulled from their homes and arrested before classes even began. According to the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), 195 students have been placed in custody during the first week of school—and one student, Omar Sharif, was reportedly shot in the head during a demonstration on Tuesday, October 14. A week later, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, Sharif died from his injuries.
After the last academic year, which saw some at least 16 students killed in campus-related violence and over a thousand more detained, the Egyptian government passed a series of regulations to tighten its grip on the universities. Student can now be expelled for insulting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and professors must be approved by the state. Some student unions and clubs have been closed down, and a private company, Falcon Group, has been licensed to carry out security checks at university gates—meaning, students say, they’ve had to line up for hours just to get into classes.
According to AFTE's Kholoud Saber, the government’s heavy-handed measures have only convinced young, politically active Egyptians to push back against Sisi, who came to power last year after a coup unseated Muslim Brotherhood–backed president Mohamed Morsi.
"These are the main reasons the students were this angry from day one," she claims. "It's not clear [yet] if the state has any intentions to try to play smart or, at least, to try and control the situation without killing students."
The hiring of Falcon was meant to be a way of establishing a security presence on campuses without stationing police officers outside of classrooms. However, some claim there is little distinction between Falcon and the state security apparatus. A recent investigation by Egyptian website Yanair found alleged links between the company and Naguib Sawiris, a figurehead of Egypt's largely pro-regime uber-rich elite, and Sameh Seif al-Yazal, a former intelligence officer generally regarded as the most public face of the Egyptian Mukhabarat (intelligence services). Neither man was available to comment on these allegations.
Saber says that clarifying these links could help to calm campus unrest. "There is a lot of missing information about [Falcon’s] relationship with the military and the Ministry of Interior," she explains. "If those points are cleared up, the situation might be better. [Falcon] needs to be under the full control of university administrations, not following anyone from outside."
But student leaders say that protests will carry on even if Falcon’s connections with the government are made more transparent.
"Students will continue to resist in their peaceful movement against the coup," claims Youssef Salhen, spokesman for the Students Against the Coup (SAC) movement, a predominantly pro-Morsi outfit which has spearheaded protests on campus since the military takeover of the government last July. "This is going to be the mainstream until the freedom fighters get all that they are protesting for."
But exactly what the “freedom fighters” are demanding isn't all that clear. SAC Facebook pages like to distribute images that conjure memories of historic student unrest—some talk about endless revolutions, sit-ins, chants, and young men throwing rocks and flaming bottles at the black-booted representatives of state violence. But campus dynamics are complex, and being anti-Sisi doesn’t mean being pro-Brotherhood.
Many liberal and leftist students resent the Brotherhood—often seen as sell-outs, charlatans and hijackers of the revolution—but tolerate SAC protests because they see the regime as the bigger problem. And the police response to student unrest hasn’t won the authorities any good will, except from pro-regime voices in the media.
Michael Azmy, a fourth-year engineering student at Alexandria University, used to demonstrate against the Brotherhood. He remembers watching from a rooftop in horror as riot police entered the campus in a cloud of tear gas and bird shot pellets on Tuesday, October 14.
"I was walking out of class and saw [the students] protesting near the gates," he says. "They were just shouting. I didn't see any sort of weapons, just fireworks and firecrackers."
Minutes later, the fizz and sting of tear gas.
"Then the students ran into the buildings for shelter."
Corridors filled with people coughing from the gas, some put up barriers to try and stop the cops from coming in. Nearby, students were battling the police, chucking handfuls of fireworks and one-finger salutes at the officers with shotguns tucked under their arms.
A video showing some of the clashes at Alexandria University's engineering campus on the afternoon of October 14
Not long after, Azmy heard that students were getting hurt. One, Sharif, was in a critical condition after being shot in the head and neck. On social media, people spread graphic pictures of three students, surrounded by trails of dark, arterial blood, frantically tending to a youth wrapped up in a kuffiyeh and reams of tissues.
Many people, like fourth-year Alexandria University arts and literature student Maram El-Gendy, are tired of the protests.
"It's like we're going to a battlefield, not a university," Gendy says, remembering how on Monday, October 13, she watched pro-Morsi students set fire to the faculty gates while the police and private security guards stood by. These are "overly violent acts" that she won't stand for, she tells me.
“I was walking towards the gate to leave. I saw a bottle go flying past my head… When I moved back, I saw the bottles weren't empty. They were Molotov cocktails.” Moments later, the faculty gates were on fire.
Student protesters set fire to the gates of Alexandria University on October 13. Photo courtesy of Maram El-Gendy
Gendy ran to a group of police officers and told them what happened. “They said: 'OK,' and that was it," she remembers angrily. "We weren't protected at all.”
Gendy is no activist, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remain apolitical at an Egyptian university.
"I don't want politics on campus like this," she says. "The campus was never this violent… maybe during the revolution [in 2011], but before it? It was never like this."
Saber believes the authorities have an opportunity to calm the situation by relaxing new restrictions and stopping the use of excessive force that appears to have killed Sharif.
“If they just try to do that, it could be a start to convince students to calm down, or at least to not use violence against the police,” she says. “The problem, for me at least, is that the state doesn’t have any intention to do so."