x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Security measures mar student polls

While regulations governing undergraduate elections in Egypt have been eased, recent ballots have revealed a lack of freedom, one observer says.

The student activists Ahmed Rahman Mustafa, left, and Mohammed Salama are both members of the Muslim Brotherhood and say they have been targeted by Cairo University on behalf of Egypt's security agencies.
The student activists Ahmed Rahman Mustafa, left, and Mohammed Salama are both members of the Muslim Brotherhood and say they have been targeted by Cairo University on behalf of Egypt's security agencies.

CAIRO // University student union elections held this month were marred by security measures aimed at excluding independent candidates from student governments, an Egyptian group that supports political freedoms reported.

School administrators, acting alongside Egyptian security forces, charged students who were known members of banned political organisations - particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed Islamist political group - with trumped up disciplinary violations to prevent them from standing, said Emad Mubarak, the director of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. This year's student union elections came two years after the ministry of higher education amended regulations that oversee student forum rules and election procedures, in a bid to lighten state control.

However, the lack of freedoms during the most recent polls reveals the extent to which the security services still consider student opposition politics a legitimate threat to the existing political order, Mr Mubarak said. "We have done a study about the recent amendments and we have come to the conclusion that these amendments just further enforce the government's rule over the student unions," said Mr Mubarak, whose organisation is in the process of challenging the 2007 student union amendments in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Mr Mubarak, along with some student politicians and faculty members, says the 2007 amendments to a 1975 law on universities give school administrators more pretexts by which to either exclude students from elections or appoint their own student leaders. Among other measures, the amendments prohibit students with any known political or sectarian affiliation from running in student union elections.

They also bar any student whose record displays disciplinary infractions, failing grades or unpaid student activities fees. But if the idea that such university regulations are committed to the free flow of ideas works in theory, it fails in practice, said Mohammed Salama, a senior in the faculty of commerce at Cairo University, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and an aspiring student leader. In his four years at Cairo University, Mr Salama has nominated himself for commerce faculty elections (each faculty has its own council of 48 student leaders) each year, and he has never been elected.

That stings, he said. But getting rejected by his peers is something Mr Salama can handle. It is the fact that he has never once appeared on the official ballot that hurts the most. "We just need freedom of choice. I'm not against failing in the elections because the students didn't select me. I'm against that my name was cancelled and so I don't have access to the elections," Mr Salama said, adding that he had wanted to use his position in the student union to press the university administration about the rising cost of books.

The problem, Mr Salama said, is that university administrators could use the amended university governance rules to intimidate would-be student officers and have them excluded from the voting rolls. Mr Salama and his friend Ahmed Rahman Mustafa said they faced spurious disciplinary charges from university officials. At one point, Mr Salama was interrogated for hanging a poster that urged students to respect each other.

Mr Salama and Mr Mustafa said the university had targeted them on behalf of Egypt's national security agencies, which keep a close eye on the outlawed Brotherhood and inform school officials of the Brotherhood members in their midst. "A student union should be a soldier to defend me from the administration. But they do the opposite. They defend the administration to the students," Mr Mustafa said."The budget of the official union is financed by my fees, so they should take care of us. But they don't. They just organise a trip or two throughout the year."

Among the worst of the new rules, Mr Mubarak said, is a regulation that requires a voting quorum of at least 20 per cent of the student body during second-round elections. Without such a quorum, the new laws stipulate that university administrators may appoint the student government from among the entire student population. It is for this reason that universities tend to schedule second-round voting before or after school holidays, when school attendance is at its lowest.

For their part, university officials say the new regulations further the spirit of free and open debate among students without interference from university staff. The laws, said Abdel Hamid Kamel, the faculty sponsor of the student union at Cairo University, are meant to both liberalise and depoliticise a student-run organisation that should be free of political considerations anyway. "The amendments gave more freedom to the students. Now the students conduct their meetings on their own and they aren't monitored by non-students," Mr Kamel said. "We treat all the students as students. They categorise themselves [politically], but we don't know their affiliations. This is for education and nothing else."

As in most countries, Egypt's university unions are primarily focused on inoffensive event planning: arranging guest lecturers, scheduling trips and organising athletic events. But they also function as incubators for the next generation of leaders, whether such leaders choose to join the ruling National Democratic Party or one of the opposition political organisations that remain largely marginalised within Egypt's political system.

And it is the students of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's best-organised, most-feared political opposition group, who are most often excluded from student union elections. So, in 2005, the Brotherhood students fought back. Students at universities across the country organised their own parallel student unions, known on each campus as the Free Student Union. For two years, the student-organised votes kept pace with the official student unions, despite the latter's better financing and official standing.

But in 2007, the Free Student Unions ended as abruptly as they had begun. Mr Salama said the lack of funding, combined with diminishing interest from the media for what was essentially an act of political protest, led to flagging interest in the free unions among fellow students. For his part, Mr Mubarak blamed substantial pressure from security forces for slowly strangling the movement, leading the Brotherhood's brass to finally kill the project two years after it had begun.

Regardless of the reasons behind the free unions' eventual demise, Mr Mubarak pointed to parallels between real elections - for those who govern the nation - and the student elections in Egypt's universities. Both processes come under the close scrutiny of security forces, if not their direct manipulation, he said. And although the corruption of both elections eventually disenfranchises their respective constituents, worse still, they leave voters complacent, uninterested and resigned to a system whose flaws seem immutable.

"Of course, all this has led to student unions only being interested in trips and sports," Mr Mubarak said. "And that's why there's so little interest in the student unions." mbradley@thenational.ae