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A different kind of fraternity
A different kind of fraternityThe Muslim Brotherhood seems to be gaining ground on university campuses as well. Mustafa El-Menshawy investigates On the Cairo University campus, signs of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence are clear. The group’s slogan -- "Islam is the Solution" -- adorns posters hanging everywhere; in classrooms, Muslim Brotherhood students often recite the Qura
Friday, November 25,2005 00:00
by (Al-Ahram)

A different kind of fraternity
The Muslim Brotherhood seems to be gaining ground on university campuses as well. Mustafa El-Menshawy investigates


On the Cairo University campus, signs of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence are clear. The group’s slogan -- "Islam is the Solution" -- adorns posters hanging everywhere; in classrooms, Muslim Brotherhood students often recite the Quran and dole out religious advice to their colleagues before and after lectures.

The Brotherhood also tried to field hundreds of candidates in the university’s student union elections earlier this month. Campus authorities, however, disqualified nearly every Islamist student who tried to get on the ballot. They also turned down leftist candidates, and those from the anti- Mubarak Kifaya movement. The result, replicated across the nation’s 15 public universities, was that nearly half of the candidates hand-picked by the authorities won their races by default, since there were no other competitors allowed.

University administrators said the disqualified students did not meet various nomination criteria, including requirements that candidates have "good reputations". In fact, that particular stipulation was widely used to screen out both leftist and Islamist applicants.

Rabie Okasha, a student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Commerce who proudly identified himself as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, wondered why "we were not allowed to run in the student union elections, even though we have major bases of support amongst the students. Where is the democracy in that?" the angry 23-year- old student asked.

After being disqualified, the university’s Islamist and leftist students joined forces to hold "shadow elections" under the supervision of a committee of university lecturers and professors. Thousands of students at universities in Assiut and Mansoura also demonstrated against the bans. A protest was staged in front of the Higher Education Ministry’s downtown Cairo headquarters, where hundreds of students called for an end to interference from security authorities in university affairs, along with other administrative reforms.

Cairo University deputy president Hamid Abu Zeid willingly admitted that the university had disqualified 260 students (out of 1070) from taking part in the elections, in order to undermine "Muslim Brotherhood attempts to control the university and apply their strict rules."

The student unions have played an extensive role -- since the early 20th century -- in many of the political upheavals that have changed the course of Egypt’s history. Student activism ahead of the 1919 Revolution against British occupation, and the 1971-73 campus-based demonstrations demanding that Egypt go to war against Israel, are two famous cases in point.

Each university faculty elects an 11- member union; members of a university- wide union are then chosen from these bodies. Delegates from each university union also represent their institution at the national Egyptian Student Union. The unions organise cultural, athletic, and social events, and serve as liaisons between students and the university’s faculty and staff.

This year’s disqualifications have confirmed many students’ and professors’ distrust of the election process. One Cairo University literature student said he "does not like to take part in elections, because they are not free and fair like the administration always claims. The same university administration-supported students win every year, even though their performance, while in office, has always been weak."

Cairo University professor Mohamed Abu Khalifa warned that, "if the government continues to restrict student outlets for expressing their points of view, the situation could get out of control, and perhaps even explode." He suggested that disqualified students might resort to violence and terrorism as one way of making their voices heard.

Voices calling for wide-scale university reforms, meanwhile, are getting louder. Thousands of students and professors took part in at least seven separate protests in November alone; one of their primary goals is amending the law -- in effect since 1979 -- that strips student unions of power and bans all political activities on campus. Another hated statute requires that all imported printed material, including course books, be reviewed by the censor’s office.

Pressure for change is also coming from abroad. In June, Human Rights Watch published a 107-page report called "Reading between the ’Red Lines’: The Repression of Academic Freedom in Egyptian Universities", in which the group said authorities "take extreme measures to repress student unions." Administrators were accused of holding elections on holidays, and using the police to keep Islamists off campus to prevent them from voting. The group said the government has targeted Islamist students with arbitrary arrest, long periods of detention, and harsh punishments for peaceful expression of political views.

The report was also critical of the rising Islamist influence on campus. It warned that Islamist militants intimidate professors and students, in many cases verbally, legally and physically attacking academics to deter them from researching controversial religious topics.

Mohamed Fathi, an advisor to the Cairo University president, told Al-Ahram Weekly that in the 1980s, "when the Muslim Brotherhood dominated student activities [at one Cairo University faculty], they banned the performance of plays, and intimidated professors and students alike." According to Fathi, the university was "afraid that could happen again."


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