Since the start of the academic year, university campuses have become the new battleground between the military-backed government and the deposed Muslim Brotherhood, but increasing police brutality has shifted the politics of the scene.
Across Egyptian universities, confrontations between security forces and students affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood have attracted little sympathy from other politically engaged students, who generally stand an equal distance from the Islamist forces and the military.
Increasing levels of brutality on the part of security forces has, however, pushed politically active students, who mostly belong to civil political movements, to act.
Dozens of students have been subject to security violations including detentions and suspension from university in the past few weeks, which has pushed various elected student unions to strike. Alarmed by a possible comeback of a tight grip over campus freedoms, the unions have called on students not to attend classes.
The prison sentences of up to 11 years against 21 women and girls arrested at a march of the 7 am movement — which describes itself as against the coup and as comprised of several political factions — in Alexandria, most of whom are university students, have pushed students in Alexandria University to strike. Elected student union representatives in eight faculties presented their resignations in protest at the harsh sentences.
But it was the death of engineering student Mohamed Reda in Cairo University that further exacerbated the situation.
Police forces shot him with a pellet in the chest while he was on the university campus during clashes between Brotherhood students and the police.
Student Abdel Ghany Hammouda in Brotherhood-dominated Al-Azhar University was also killed three weeks ago when police forces stormed the university’s dorms during clashes with Brotherhood students.
While police forces denied that Reda was killed inside the campus, Minister of Higher Education Hossam Eissa, previously a longtime advocate of campus freedoms, supported the stance of the Ministry of Interior, alleging that police forces did not use pellet shots.
Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim addressed the students during a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, urging them not to be “dragged behind those who want to cause rifts in the country,” adding that he does not dare to use his weapons against the students, and that he would “cut off my hand before this happens,” Al-Shorouk daily newspaper reported Wednesday.
“I continue to be very patient with them, but the students have to realize that what is happening is a conspiracy to reinstate the Brotherhood back in the political scene,” he said, adding that the students are the ones attacking the security forces.
In reaction, the Cairo University student union along with other universities on Sunday declared a day for mass protests on campus demanding retribution for Reda.
Students also declared a set of demands including the release of all detained students, the sacking of the interior minister and the minister of higher education, and the end to all security presence inside campuses.
The emerging action by students seemed to present a chance for a potential alliance between politically active students and those who are Brotherhood-affiliated following a longstanding rift.
But the potential for an alliance was quickly disrupted by ensuing events.
Once the students gathered in huge numbers to protest police brutality on Sunday, Students Against the Coup (SAC), an umbrella group including Brotherhood affiliates and sympathizers, chanted for the reinstatement of deposed President Mohamed Morsi and raised the four-finger Rabea sign, a tribute to the bloody dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya in August.
Scuffles erupted between SAC and other students who viewed the SAC’s actions as an attempt to hijack the student movement.
“We never thought of any political alliances with the Brotherhood students. The student union declared a day of mass protest with clear demands and chants that combine the general interests of the entire student body, including the Brotherhood. We could not prevent the SAC from participating, it was a general call,” Wessam Atta, a student representing the Revolution Path Front, a coalition formed to challenge both the military and the Brotherhood, says.
Atta recounts how revolutionary students had to get their protests separated from the Brotherhood’s, who later marched to Tahrir Square and clashed with security forces.
He believes that the Brotherhood’s political games will be detrimental to the emerging student movement.
“I’m sure that more students, especially the non-politicized ones, will feel less encouraged to participate in protests and strikes, simply because they will fear the usual hijacking by the Brotherhood students,” he explains.
Medical student Ahmed Ismail who belongs to the Egyptian Social Democratic Party agrees with Atta.
“Our movement was not Brotherhood-dominated. The protests on Sunday resulted in a huge movement by the entire student body against the atrocities unleashed on the students and the brutality of the police who killed our friend,” he explains.
“The non-politicized student body will not accept its efforts being used by the Brotherhood students to achieve demands they do not believe in,” he adds.
But what Ismail fears the most is a potential divide, within the actual non-Brotherhood movement.
“We have students who belong to Strong Egypt Party student movement and the Egyptian Current Party movement, and those student have different views towards what happened in June 30,” Ismail explains, referring to the popular protests following which the military deposed President Mohamed Morsi. Both parties are made up predominantly of former Brotherhood members.
“I’m afraid that they may have no problems with forming alliances with the Brotherhood. That would be a big blow to the revolutionary movement,” Ismail says.
But other independent students see that a potential alliance with the Brotherhood students is inevitable. Among them is Baher Adel, vice president of the Alexandria University student union, who presented his resignation in protest at the harsh prison sentences against the women and girls arrested at a march in Alexandria.
“Our colleges were subject to a lot of atrocities. Injustice will affect everyone not only the Brotherhood. We have a mutual interest in maintaining our freedoms. The situation is drastically different from the larger political scene, we have too much in common inside our campuses,” he explains.
But Brotherhood students seem to move along in their own way.
SAC representative in Ain Shams University Shady Ibrahim said on his Facebook page following the rift between SAC and other political forces on Sunday that the time to form alliances has passed.
“Is the alliance with the students of the political forces who were silent for four months over the death of thousands [of Brotherhood supporters in Rabea] and the detention of 30 000 based merely on mutual interest or ethical principles? If it is based on interests, let them burn with it. If it was based on principles, four months are enough to know who stands for a cause and principles,” he wrote.
“[We are not] giving up on the four raised fingers [referring to Rabea sign that angered the students]. We will raise it everywhere, every time, and whenever we like,” he added in another post.
For Ahmed Abd Rabou, professor of political science at Cairo University and founding member of Revolution Path Front, the actions of the Brotherhood students may negatively affect the student movement, but not for too long.
“Of course less students will participate in the upcoming protests after what they saw as a hijacking by the Brotherhood of their movement, but sooner or later, a potential alliance has to take place,” Rabou says.
Rabou believes that common ground and the shared interests among the students are much wider than those between the political forces in the wider political scene, which make alliances between the students more likely.
He believes that the alliance should be based on clearly set criteria to avoid any possible politicization.
“The real challenge for the student community,” he says, “is how to control the scene so that it is not politically used by any political force, because once the movement is used in this way, it will lose its effect.”