CAIRO: “Before, I used to suspect a couple of people in my entourage in college of working as secret agents for the government, now I doubt all my colleagues.”
Ahmed Nada, 21, a student at the Faculty of Political Science at Cairo University, spoke to The Cairo Post as various media reports have reported on the government’s employment of “patriotic students to help security authorities restore order,” after a previous academic year marked by violent mass student uprisings.
Nada, who was an active member of a student political movement, said he had been attentive to media reports and the statements of Cairo University President Gaber Nassar on intensified security measures to face violence in the upcoming semester.
“And so I have decided to abstain from any protests, stay away from politics and focus on graduating. I don’t think [authorities] are kidding this year, they will be very strict concerning protests,” Nada added.
University heads have coordinated with different state security bodies to distribute “agents” on campus to track students’ political affiliations, who may cooperate with members from the Ministry of Interior present inside universities, according to a report published by Al-Shorouq newspaper Oct. 8, which quoted unnamed sources from the Ministry of Higher Education.
Al-Azhar University media officer Hossam Shaker previously denied accusations of recruiting informers among the student body, saying that “the duty of the student is just to be a student, nothing else is required from students.”
“There was a girl I used to know in college. We didn’t exchange many political opinions because we were diametrically opposed, but I was skeptical about her in general because she was engaged to a police or army officer,” Nada told The Cairo Post. “My doubts were confirmed when I recently saw her TV speaking on behalf of the students and expressing solidarity with the government,” he continued, adding that “rats like media exposure.”
The Egyptian public has been quite familiar with “secret agents” reporting for the government. Secret reports on colleagues in different institutions were often suspected during the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the practice has been ongoing since.
“They have indeed always been there, even among professors,” Hany el-Hosseiny, a professor at the Faculty of Sciences at Cairo University told The Cairo Post. “But what I think is extremely dangerous is encouraging those who tell on others by calling them ‘national heroes.’ What are we teaching those kids about values?”
From September 2013 to March 2014, a series of violent student protests erupted across the nation, originally started by students refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and demanding the return of ousted president Mohamed Morsi in response to calls by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Public universities across the country have been particularly shaken by the student movement, which organized protests on a daily basis, often taking marches beyond university fences and clashing with police forces, which resulted in deaths, injuries and arrests.
As a result, universities have equipped themselves with armored electronic gates and metal sheets to secure entrances and exits, and have intensified security presence by hiring private security companies and increasing the number of security guards.
Students will have to cope with a list of restrictions “for security reasons” and meticulous ID checks in addition to the examination of their criminal and drug records if they are to stay at university dorms.
“Students’ IDs will be electronically screened upon their desire to enter the university and their bags will be searched with X-ray machines,” official media spokesperson for Falcon security Walid Fouad told The Cairo Post two days ahead of the first day of classes.
Fouad said the company was hired by the Ministry of Higher Education to secure 12 universities across the country, including top universities like Cairo, Al-Azhar, Ain Shams and Alexandria.
“We are only in charge of securing students’ entrances and exits from outside the university. We do not deal with students inside. In case of violence, protests and the like, it becomes the responsibility of the police,” Fouad explained.
Security turns into crackdown
Punishable acts under new laws include participation in protests, possession of weapons, attacking university property or incitement to any of those activities which would interfere with the educational operation.
Yet, the most controversial decision undertaken by university presidents concerning students is the ban on political activity on university campuses. Student clubs have been suspended as a result of the ban.
“I was a member of a financial club at the university, but we were informed during summer vacation that our activities were suspended until further notice, although we were not politically oriented,” Nada said.
However, Cairo University official spokesperson Adel Abdul Ghaffar said this was not true. “The only activities banned are those related to political parties because they are usually a source of tension between students,” Abdul Ghaffar told The Cairo Post, adding that student can organize political activities in the university.
Moreover, professors will be facing similar restrictions and university presidents will have almost absolute power. A September decision by the Cabinet updating a 1972 law gives university heads carte blanche to dismiss professors if any are found to be involved in political activity or inciting students to do so.
According to the original law, the president of the university was only entitled to penalize through a warning against the professor, after the completion of investigations under the supervision of a state council member as well as a law professor assigned by the president of the university, and the accused could retain a lawyer.
The new law gives stricter penalties, and the university president now serves as indictor and investigator, which is a step backwards according to the Independent Syndicate for Professors.
According to syndicate founder Mohamed el-Shaqafie, the problem is that it will become personal, meaning that the university president will make a decision based on his or her personal opinion. “What if there are personal conflicts with a certain professor?” Shaqafie told The Cairo Post Friday.
“Despite that professors are entitled to appeal the decision before a court, a case can take years, during which the professor would be financially harmed,” Hosseiny said. “Now it is just up to the university president’s judgment.”
In a statement released on Sept. 29, 122 professors demanded to meet President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to discuss their objections before the law is officially passed. Hosseiny said a silent protest supporting that cause will be organized at Cairo University on Oct. 13.
“We oppose policies that aim at silencing voices. The president of the university should not have a right to ban a professor’s political activity as long as it does not incite violence,” Shaqafie said.
During his short term as an interim president from July 2013 to May 2014, Adly Mansour issued a presidential decree approving an amendment to university law that would give the president of the university direct authority to suspend any student involved in any violent activity.
Students facing charges should be able to appeal the decision, but many have found themselves suspended without knowing details of any investigations.
“Last year, a colleague was suspended and only found out after receiving a letter signed by Cairo University’s president. As far as we know there were no investigations and we were rather shocked because she was a top student,” said Nada.
However, professors have argued that a security solution alone would not be effective. “If students are brainwashed with ‘wrong’ concepts, we must address them with words and we must choose the right person to talk to them,” Walid Fathallah, a professor at the Faculty of Mass Communications at Cairo University, told Al-Ahram on Sept. 22.
Shaker added, however, it was important to establish proper communication between students and professors, explaining that there will be a new strategy adopted by Al-Azhar University, which consists of assigning each professor to communicate with a specific group of students about their concerns.
“The more we put efforts in it, the less the violent groups have a chance in mobilizing masses, and eventually these groups will find themselves isolated,” Hosseiny said.
However, Students Against the Coup movement, (SAC) which played a major role in the previous student protests, defied authorities by vowing to continue demonstrating against the regime during the upcoming semester.
“We are about to start a new academic year during which our strife continues. Our revolution heats up and will not fear the forces of oppression or weak administrations which submitted universities to the rule of the army,” SAC posted on their official Facebook page on Oct. 5.
Hosseiny warned against the backfire of the government’s measures, saying students recruited by extremist groups will be working in secret, which will become more problematic than before.
“I believe the state is pushing for more violence, more extremism,” Hosseiny said.
Politics of the ‘security state’
“The frame of mind of the current state wants a centralization of power with ‘emergency circumstances’ used as justification,” Hosseiny said. “It does not matter that we have incredible issues with the education system itself.”
Experts have compared the current situation to that of Nasser and the establishment of a “vanguard secret organization” where citizens were unofficially recruited to become spies on their fellow citizens for the regime.
Renowned writer and political analyst Belal Fadl referred to the “return of the nation of spies” in an article recently published by Mada Masr on Oct. 6. In his piece, he asked the question as to how the Nasser regime was able to gather all Egyptian politicians and intellectuals—even those who held different opinions—to embrace the idea of providing the state with security reports.
In his book “The Secret Reports of the Avant-Garde Organizations” released in 2007, historian and Suez Canal University professor Hamada Hosni revealed the names of “spies,” which included a broad list of well-known politicians, public figures, intellectuals and university professors, Al-Arabiya reported.
The state approach is being promoted as one of its counter-terrorism strategies, aimed at preventing incitement to political violence, but has turned into a “paranoia spread across various institutions,” Egyptian political scientist Amr Hamzawy wrote in Al-Shorouq on Oct. 8.
Additional reporting by Hani Mohamed, Hend Adel and Wael Rabei.