Fate of student union elections unknown as conflict widens between students and state

The Higher Education Ministry raised controversy last week when it didn’t approve the final results of student union elections in Egypt’s public universities, in which candidates associated with the protest movement garnered a major win.

After an electoral battle with the largely pro-government Voice of Egypt’s Students coalition, the president of Cairo University student union, Abdallah Anwar, and his counterpart in Tanta University, Amr al-Helw, both won the leadership of Egypt’s biggest student body as president and vice president.  Both Anwar and Helw identify themselves as supporters of the January 25 revolution, and as proponents of academic and campus freedoms.

The union is composed of the elected presidents and vice presidents from student unions in public universities, their counterparts at Al-Azhar University, and one representative of private universities.

Outraged by the ministry’s reluctance to approve the results and declare them, the student community launched a hashtag on social media, “I support Egypt’s Student Union.

“The generals are upset because we have a student union president who speaks for detainees and is affiliated with January 25. There is a battle against the students and universities are the voice of the revolution,” one student tweeted.

Recent remarks by Minister Ashraf al-Shehy also added fuel to the fire. He slammed Helw’s comments that protests on campus are a student right during the opening of a workshop organized by the ministry. “I wish he would do this [protest] to be suspended from the university immediately,” he said, questioning Helw’s political affiliations.

Shehy says that, while there is no intention to cancel the Egypt Student Union elections, appeals against the results should be investigated according to the law, in reference to a legal loophole within the student election bylaws.

The elections were conducted according to a 2013 ministerial decree issued by former Prime Minister Hesham Qandil. However, previous 2007 bylaws, passed through a presidential decree, do not stipulate the formation of Egypt’s Student Union.

“Bylaws issued through a presidential decree are stronger than those passed through a ministerial decree,” Shehy asserted. He also denied any intervention by the ministry to support certain students. “If we did this, the Voice of Egypt’s Students would have won,” he added.

Based on this loophole, an appeal has been filed with the Administrative Court against the results of the Egypt Student Union elections.

Mohamed Nagui, a researcher in academic freedoms at the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) explains that such a loophole has been used because the government isn’t happy with the results.

“The state did everything possible to prevent students with a connection to the revolution from winning the elections,” he told Mada Masr. “The ministry intervened in favor of students belonging to the Voice of Egyptian Students, but all these efforts were in vain,” he asserted.

Nagui referred to restrictions on student candidate nominations enforced by the ministry as a way of eliminating politicized students from the process. These regulations, passed by the ministry in October, stipulated that students running in the elections must have paid their university fees in full, and not be subject to any disciplinary penalties by the administration or be affiliated with any terrorist or unlawful organizations.

Several media reports asserted that the new amendments were used to prevent students affiliated with the April 6 Youth Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood from running in the elections, as both groups were banned by a court order in 2013. Deputy head of the high committee for student services and activities at the Higher Education Ministry Sobhy Hassanein denied these claims in previous remarks with Mada Masr.

“Only students who were sentenced according to court orders or punished by a university disciplinary decision will be banned from contesting the elections, Hassanein asserted. “We cannot prevent students from their right to candidacy merely for their political affiliations.”

However, Nagui says that around 700 students were excluded from the elections, mostly for their political affiliations. To circumvent the system, students had to hide their affiliations with revolutionary groups and nominate themselves as independents. These measures took a lot of organization and alliance building between students with revolutionary leanings.

Helw told Mada Masr that state intervention was evident throughout the elections, rendering the environment highly hostile.

“Many students were not encouraged to vote, politics was dying on campus and those affiliated with certain political groups faced disqualification if they declared their opposition to state oppression or called for the rights of detained students,” he said.

Another tool by the ministry, according to Nagui, was to create a “void” by canceling student union elections for two years. In doing so, the state aimed to create an apolitical student body.

Anwar and Helw also accused the Ministry of Higher Education of intervening to pressure students to vote for the Voice of Egypt’s Students coalition.

In particular, they accused the ministry of pressuring elected student union leaderships to vote for two candidates representing Ain Shams and Minya universities to lead the Egypt Student Union. Both candidates belong to the Voice of Egypt’s Students coalition.

The student community specifically pointed to Higher Education Ministry advisor Hossameddine Moustafa, who is alleged to have intervened in the elections.

Moustafa and ministry officials were not available to comment.

Helw says politicized students allied with independents against students backed by the state. As Nagui explains, “The state supported students who are not strongly connected to the student body,” adding, “The Voice of Egypt’s Students had no real basis of support on campus.”

Mohamed Tarek, the coordinator of the Voice of Egypt’s Students, however, denies all allegations of state support. “We won’t defend ourselves, such accusations were repeatedly propagated in the media and were proven to be wrong in recent elections results,” he told Mada Masr.

While showing his respect for Egypt’s Student Union, Tarek says his coalition has no connection with it presently, until the appeals have been investigated, adding, “We will respond to these accusations soon, and it will be a surprise.”

Mai Shams El-Din 

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