x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Student protests at Egypt’s Al Azhar University challenge army

Thousands of students stage third day of protests against the removal of Mohammed Morsi as president.

CAIRO // Thousands of students from Egypt’s Al Azhar University on Monday staged a third day of protests against the removal of Mohammed Morsi as president.

The demonstrations are a delicate matter for the authorities because the administration at Al Azhar, the ancient seat of Sunni learning, has historically toed the government line.

In another sign of Egypt’s crisis, the prime minister on Monday threatened tough measures against anyone who attempts to divide Egypt after gunmen killed four people in an attack on a church in Cairo.

The protests at Al Azhar campuses in Cairo and other cities are smaller than previous rallies against the government. Security sources said about 4,000 students were involved, of whom 44 had been arrested.

The unrest suggests supporters of Mr Morsi may have shifted tactics, focusing on sensitive sites rather than huge street protests.

Some imams, officials and professors at Al Azhar are supporters of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

It was not clear whether the protests reflect serious splits between them and their opponents at Al Azhar, or whether a group of students is simply trying to pressure the government.

Authorities have been cracking down hard on the Brotherhood, which swept elections after Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign in 2011 after a popular uprising, but is now outlawed again.

The military removed Mr Morsi in July after millions of Egyptians held unprecedented demonstrations calling for Mr Morsi to step down.

Hundreds of people have been killed in protests since Mr Morsi’s ousting. Brotherhood leaders, including Mr Morsi, have been jailed on charges of inciting violence.

The student demonstrations erupted as a debate grows over a draft law that would severely restrict protests.

Human rights group say the law would only bring more bloodshed.

After toppling Mr Morsi, the army chief, Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi, appeared on state television to announce a political road map that would lead to free and fair elections.

In an assertion of sectarian harmony, Gen El Sisi was flanked by a senior imam and the Coptic Christian pope, but a crackdown on Mr Morsi’s supporters in August was followed by Egypt’s worst attacks on churches and Christian property in years.

The authorities have accused the Brotherhood of being behind the violence, a charge it rejects.

Minority Coptic Christians fear an Islamist backlash against their community which is widely seen as backing Mr Morsi’s ousting.

On Sunday, gunmen on a motorcycle fired on wedding guests outside a Coptic church in a Cairo suburb. An eight-year-old child was among the four people killed. Six were wounded.

“Christians are the target,” said a church official. “Low security around churches has always been an issue ... Still we know we are a target for Islamists.”

The prime minister Hazem El Beblawi said that such “heinous acts” would not succeed in dividing Egyptians and that the government would watch out for attempts to sow discord.

* Reuters