The Falcons on campus
"Show me your ID and go over there for inspection," the security guard told me aggressively, although I was already handing him my ID card.
As I was entering through Cairo University gates, like I have always done, I realized that it didn’t seem to be normal again. I went through unusual security procedures, which I thought that I wouldn't mind, until the security officer started to address me in an unjustifiably offensive tone. He didn't even take the time to compare my face to the picture on my ID, as he asked me to rush to the other side of the gate for inspection. I was perplexed.
It was rather early, 8 am, and many students had not arrived yet for the first day of school after a long summer break. The campus was still quiet and calm and nothing called for the guard’s behavior. It was not just me – a security guard literally shouted at my friend because she forgot her wallet and didn't have her university ID on her. The atmosphere was tense and the students were frustrated.
Tension intensified between the university students and the state as a result of last year's violence on campus, when at least 16 students were killed inside university campuses across Egypt, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. Muslim Brotherhood students, which had formed the group Students Against the Coup, had organized protests against the military state, which violently cracked down on the protests and violence that ensued. All students suffered, whether they were protesting or not. We were exposed to teargas and birdshot bullets. The security forces' violent crackdown on all students, including non-activists, fueled the student body with anger against the state.
This year, the situation worsened after new university policies were announced, prior to the start of the academic year. The policies manifest the state’s draconian manner in dealing with students. The new policies include the banning of all political activities on campus, prohibiting anyone from wearing attire with political slogans, and a stipulation that all students are required to provide a criminal record to the administration. The strictest policy relates to restricting freedom of speech, whereby students who chant abusive words related to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be expelled. To monitor students’ behavior, the state will recruit infiltrators from among the students to spy on their colleagues.
In addition, a private security company, Falcon, is hired to be responsible for security on campus along with Egyptian security forces.
The students were already outraged by these policies, and they are back this year feeling even more incensed by the security guards who are stationed all over the university. I know many students who are politically indifferent, yet would side with the Muslim Brotherhood students against the security personnel. Campus security’s mandate has clearly strayed away from existing for the safety of students to policing the campus, in an unprecedented manner, which reflects the state’s fear of university students. The state’s vendetta against the student body doesn't only include supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. All students feel chafed at the new draconian procedures on campus.
Despite all these security measures, minor protests still took place inside many public universities around Egypt. In Cairo University, gates were closed off for a while during the day as some students demonstrated against the state-hired private security forces, Falcon. They also protested against military rule and the detainment of their colleagues who were arrested on Saturday from their houses in anticipation of activity on campuses. The protests in Cairo University, as well as other universities, were dispersed, but the violence wasn’t easily restrained, as some students clashed with the private security guards.
For the past two days, security forces dispersed the small protests when they stormed the campus, but I don't think it is going to last. Tensions are rising and unprecedented violence is expected during the coming days if the government keeps imposing these conditions against students. By the end of last year, many students had become apathetic towards the Brotherhood protests, and classes would still proceed with a small march going around the campus until the security forces started dispersing them, and that's when the violence is reborn. These minor protests don’t actually disturb the academic activities as much as the violent clashes do. In fact, the truth becomes blurred and the students, including the anti-Brotherhood ones, end up blaming the state when causalities occur – and that was the case when my colleague, Mohamed Reda, was shot dead inside the Faculty of Engineering campus.
Violence breeds more violence and it is hard to tell if the government's strategy to “secure” the campus is even working.
The security measures deprive the students of standard safety in an academic environment, as they’re treated aggressively the moment they reached the gates. The amount of electronic gates installed cannot accommodate the number of students who enter the university during rush hours, and it took some students hours to get in. Some students still got in without their IDs because the guards couldn't properly check the numbers of students demanding to enter. The state's plans seem to revolve around handling protests and arresting protesters, but it cannot deal with the thousands of students who are harmed by such procedures.
It has only been two days since the academic year began, but one cannot see the situation improve from last year. We sit inside our classes with our fingers crossed, hoping nothing horrible happens outside.
In the end, there are too many security guards and “Falcons” present, but students barely feel safe. We all know this is not how an academic environment should be.