CAIRO — “My mom was afraid for me to come to this meeting,” says Mohamed, a student and frequent protester at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. “When all your friends are dead or in prison, you wonder: ‘When is it my turn?’”
In a private office far from the university, a small group of Al-Azhar students and a professor discuss the interim government’s crackdown on Islamists and secular protesters alike. Mohamed, a supporter of ousted President Mohammed Morsi who declined to give his last name for safety reasons, counts the number of friends who have died protesting. “Fifteen,” he says. Youssef, whose blue backpack sits at his feet, nods his head slowly. “I’ve seen my friends die in front of me.”
In a growing opposition to the military-backed government, thousands of students in recent weeks have rallied at university campuses across Egypt, even after interim President Adly Mansour passed a law banning unapproved protests. Scores of students have been arrested, suspended and killed. While many of them support the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood — especially at Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s oldest religious institution — secular students who shouted for Morsi’s downfall are also revolting at campuses across the country.
But these student protests aren’t new. Egypt’s campuses have long fostered political mobilization and, for generations, gone through phases of upheaval. Since the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood actively recruited students to join its ranks.
Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses the long-standing tradition of Egyptian student protests in his book The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He describes the 1968 student uprising against President Gamal Abdel Nasser as one that demanded “political and personal freedoms, parliamentary reforms, and a reigning in of police and intelligence services on university campuses.” As students became increasingly disenchanted with the regime that failed to meet the revolution’s goals, protests raged and student “provocateurs” were rounded up and detained. His description of the protests that occurred more than 40 years ago eerily echoes the student protests happening today.
In an interview with The Huffington Post on Sunday, Cook expanded on the historical significance of the campus demonstrations, saying: “Cairo University and the universities, in general, have been a big problem for all of Egypt’s presidents despite ongoing efforts to depoliticize the campuses and then turn university administrators and faculty into agents of the regime.”
Back in the office, the Al-Azhar students talk about their own families’ histories as student protesters. Youssef’s father demonstrated at Minia University against the Camp David Accords, signed between former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in September 1978. And Mohamed’s father was part of a student union that rallied on campuses against Mubarak in the 1980s. “He was protesting against almost the same things we are protesting against now,” Youssef says, laughing bitterly.
Since 2010, police have been legally barred from entering campuses unless granted permission by university authorities. But on Nov. 21, as student protests raged, the interim government gave police the authority to enter campuses and squash protests without any permission at all. Initiatives to crack down on dissent are supported by many protest-weary Egyptians, who are more concerned with restoring security and finding jobs than listening to protest chants.
One week later, riot police reportedly shot and killed Cairo University student Mohamed Reda. Photos of Reda, with a bullet wound to the head, went viral. Thousands of students converged on the university’s campus Sunday to protest the government in solidarity with the slain student. On Monday, Egypt’s prosecutor general’s office claimed Reda was shot by fellow students, not by security forces. The student union has wholly rejected the report as a fabrication.
At Al-Azhar University, protests persist despite a heavy crackdown on students. Twelve of the university’s students were sentenced to 17 years in prison on Nov. 13 on charges of inciting riots, attempting to storm the university’s headquarters and sabotaging property. When clashes broke out on campus a week later, a student was shot dead by security forces inside the student dorms. On Nov. 21, 38 Al-Azhar students were sentenced to a year and a half in prison for stirring protests.
And at Ain Shams University, protesters are demanding the release of two students, Tarek Hussein Abdel Galil and Hamza Hamada, who remain in detention. Both young men are supporters of Morsi, according to students at the university. Galil was arrested during a protest and Hamada was arrested while taking the metro. He faces charges of disrupting metro activities, says Radwa Yassin, a member of the engineering school’s student union.
“When the military is going after our colleagues, it doesn’t matter to us if they’re pro-Muslim Brotherhood or not,” Yassin says. Like other protesters at Ain Shams, Yassin does not support the Muslim Brotherhood. But, she says, their political affiliation should not matter. Relations are tense between the secular and pro-Muslim Brotherhood student demonstration groups, which were previously at each other’s throats but are now rallying against the same governing body.
After a student strike within the engineering school went on for days last week, the administration agreed to form a committee with the student union. According to Yassin, the committee will go to Egypt’s prosecutor general and demand the release of the two detained students.
Even at the exclusive American University in Cairo (AUC), the stomping ground of Egypt’s political and economic elite that has long been insulated from most of the political drama, a small protest rallied on Sunday against police and Ministry of Interior brutality.
According to Salma Hegab, a journalism student at AUC, roughly 100 students joined the protest, including some Muslim Brotherhood supporters, though they refrained from raising their four-fingered salute commemorating an Islamist sit-in that was violently cleared by security forces in August. (This simple, yet politicized hand gesture has become the defining symbol of pro-Morsi protesters.) The protesters also rallied for the release of Abdullah Hamdy, an AUC student who was highly critical of Morsi’s ousting. He was detained nearly two months ago after reportedly taking part in protests in downtown Cairo.
As the number of detained, disappeared and dead students ticks higher, campus protests swell in size. Many students say the revolution has failed, but for others, like Al-Azhar student Mohamed, the fight isn’t over just yet. As a student, his father protested against the dictator whom Mohamed later helped overthrow. Now, it’s “his time” to follow in his father’s footsteps, he says.
“We are afraid,” he admits. “We are only flesh and blood. But we are protesting for our dignity, and it’s a great cause to fight for.”