The past academic year has been a nightmare for Egypt’s university students, who have paid a high price for the escalating political conflict between the military-backed government and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
The country’s campuses have become a theater of violent confrontations between pro-Brotherhood students and security forces. In the last academic year, at least 14 students were killed, thousands detained and hundreds suspended.
But the heaviest burden of the conflict has largely been borne by non-partisan students, according to government critics.
Swept up in a wave of state-sponsored crackdowns on protests and dissenting voices, Rasha Abdel Samea, Abdel Rahman Fouad and Ahmed Nour have their own tales of wrongful arrests, judicial battles and jeopardized futures.
Abdel Samea, a 23-year-old economics and political sciences major at Cairo University, was waiting for the official results of her final exam this summer when her friends told her she had been suspended.
The abrupt suspension was issued based on charges of rioting, damaging school property and being affiliated with the Brotherhood.
Abdel Samea claims she has never participated in any on-campus protests, and has no political affiliations.
“Why was I accused and suspended? I have no answer,” she says.
She was set to graduate first in her class and was on track to begin her academic career, a dream she’s worked hard to realize.
The news was hard on Abdel Samea’s father, a farmer in Luxor who “had little chance at education.”
“He knew its value, though,” Abdel Samea explains. “He didn’t once hesitate to send his young daughter hundreds of miles away to Cairo, challenging all the social norms of Upper Egyptian society.”
Abdel Samea has stayed in Cairo since July 9, when she began her legal battle against the university. She has missed out on Ramadan and two Eid celebrations with her family.
“When my father found out, he told me one thing: ‘Don’t come back until you get your rights’,” Abdel Samea recounts.
After months in court, Cairo University’s lawyers have failed to present any evidence supporting the charges against her. The case is set for a final verdict in mid-November. But she was surprised to recently find out that the university has rescinded its suspension, though she is still not permitted to register for a post-graduate degree, nor to enter campus.
But Abdel Samea won’t accept defeat. Her father taught her otherwise, she explains with a challenging gleam in her eyes.
Since 2013, hundreds of university students across Egypt have been suspended for their alleged role in on-campus violence and protests, according to Mohamed Nagui, a researcher in the academic freedoms unit at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).
It has been very difficult to identify the exact number of suspended students, because authorities have yet to release any official, aggregated figures, according to Nagui.
Abdel Rahman Fouad, a 21-year-old student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Commerce, was summarily arrested outside a metro station close to campus in January 2014. He and 45 other students were charged with rioting.
Without his case ever being brought to court, Fouad and his colleagues were sent to the notorious Wadi al-Notrun Prison, where Fouad claims he was subject to torture and severe physical assaults.
He was recently released after eight months of arbitrary detention, but he is now scared to set foot on campus.
“I can’t stand seeing security forces everywhere. I just panic every time I see uniform or riot police, I feel oppressed,” Fouad says with a downcast eyes. “Before, if I couldn’t freely express my opinions outside the university, at least I could express them inside. Now I can’t.”
Nour, a 20-year-old media student at Al-Azhar University, was arrested and summarily suspended last March while filming on-campus violence as a correspondent for AFTE’s academic freedoms unit.
He has since been sentenced to two years in prison for rioting and other violent acts. But the court’s verdict is not final. Nour, like Abdel Samea, has filed a lawsuit and still hopes for a miracle.
“I’m at risk of being imprisoned for two years, suspended and unable to enroll in another university. Even if the court drops my charges, I still couldn’t go to school. I’d be forced to do my military service with a high school degree, which means I’d have to serve for two to three years. This all means that I won’t be able to escape this nightmare for three years,” Nour argues.
Nour is referring to the High Council of Universities’ recent ruling that students suspended from government schools cannot enroll in private universities, due to the violence and vandalism they allegedly orchestrated at their home campuses.
“It is part of the general atmosphere of limiting academic freedoms. The regime is working on punishing these students due to their political stances,” Nagui asserts. “The government is jeopardizing their futures in order to send a message that any political dissent will be met with zero-tolerance.”
The state’s arbitrary punishment of bystanders and non-partisan students is taking its toll.
Fouad admits that he once thought of carrying weapons to use against the police after what he experienced, but backed off when he remembered his family.
“I do not want them to feel the pain they saw before,” he says. “I do not want to risk going to jail again.”
His experiences have clearly shaken him.
“I’d sooner commit suicide than go back to jail,” he insists.
Young people are psychologically more fragile, and often cope poorly with abusive and oppressive experiences, states Mona Hamed, a psychiatrist with Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.
“Prior experiences can often help those who face oppression cope, but young people with little or no prior experience, or those whose futures are still uncertain, can suffer more psychologically from oppression and abuse,” she explains.
Abused individuals generally suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the short term, Hamed says, but in the longer term, they could also struggle with behavioral and personality changes, like introversion. Turning to violence and self-medicating with drugs are common coping tactics.
Radicalization is also a possibility, according to Hamed, depending on the severity and frequency of the abuse, as well as the victim’s social background.
Abdel Samea, for one, is determined to get to the bottom of this state-sponsored oppression.
“I want to know why this was done to me. It’s a matter of principle,” she stresses.
All three students are asking the same question: Why me?
Nour’s prospects are the grimmest. He looks at his fortunes with a mixture of bemusement and deep frustration.
“I wasn’t protesting. If I had been, I’d at least have felt the satisfaction of taking a conscious decision and then paying its price,” he explains. “But two years of jail and suspension just because I held a camera is completely unfair.”
As the government continues its sweeping crackdown, perhaps this arbitrariness is an end in itself.
Hamed argues that people who are arrested randomly or abused for no clear reasons are prone to more severe psychological repercussions.
“The brain is more overwhelmed when it doesn’t understand, why me? When will I be released? Waiting is difficult,” she explains. “Sometimes abusers deliberately put the abused in this state, because they know that question marks are far more difficult than ugly answers.”