A group of revolutionary student movements vowed in a press conference Monday to continue supporting the Egyptian Student Union (ESU) elected in nationwide elections and then promptly dissolved by the Ministry of Higher Education.
After an electoral battle over the past month in which the largely pro-government Voice of Egypt’s Students coalition did not fare well, the president of Cairo University student union, Abdallah Anwar, and his counterpart at Tanta University, Amr al-Helw, won the leadership of Egypt’s biggest student body as president and vice president respectively. Both Anwar and Helw identify themselves as supporters of the January 25 revolution, and as proponents of academic and campus freedoms.
The ESU 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.
The ministry’s decision to cancel the results of the latest ESU elections— on the basis of a procedural error — was the latest development in a long standoff between the state and the student community. The elections shall be reconducted again at a later stage.
The students accuse the ministry of trying to intervene in the elections in favour of the pro-state Voice of Egypt Students coalition and against the elected independent students who are known for their affiliation to the January 25 revolution.
When the results were not to the state’s liking, the students allege, the ministry used the excuse of a procedural error to invalidate them.
The students referred in the press conference to previous remarks by Higher Education Minister Ashraf al-Shehy as an indication of the ministry’s rhetoric and its bias against the elected union. At the opening of a workshop organized by the ministry Shehy slammed comments made by elected ESU vice president Helw that protests on campus are a student right.
“I wish he would do this [protest] to be suspended from the university immediately,” he said, questioning Helw’s political affiliations. 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.”
The press conference comes following the ministry’s decision to refer the issue to the State Council’s Committee of Jurisprudence and Legislation, which was considered by the students as an attempt by the state to win some time.
Head of the political office at Strong Egypt student movement Mahmoud Shalaby explained that the referral to the State Council is an attempt to ease the pressure on the ministry and simply buy some time.
Renowned human rights lawyer Khalid Ali who attended the conference in support of the students agreed with Shalaby, adding that the State’s Council’s decisions are not legally binding in the first place.
The ministry’s decision to cancel the results of the ESU elections is related to the fact that one of the votes given to both Anwar and Helw was nullified The nullified vote is that of vice president of Zagazig University student union Ahmed Ateya Azzazzy who won the elections in his university, after former vice president Mohamed al-Sobky presented his resignation.
Shalaby who witnessed the voting process explained that voting was supposed to close at 12pm on December 10, but representatives of the ministerial committee monitoring the elections decided to extend the voting time until Zagazig University representatives could attend. When Azzazzy arrived, the committee found that his name was not listed in its records, and had Sobky’s name instead.
“The committee at the time investigated three faxes sent by the Zagazig University administration, including Sobky’s resignation, Azzazzy’s election proof, and a paper explaining the formation of the university student union after the new changes,” Shalaby said. “Only when the committee made sure that the documents were correct, was Azzazzy allowed to vote. How come the committee now discovers that the decision which caused a two-hour delay in the voting process was illegal?”
During the conference, Ali added that even if Azzazzy’s vote is nullified, this would not affect the final results.
Resorting to the State Council is an attempt to look for a legal cover that gives the ministry “the kiss of life”, Ali added. “The State Council is not tied to a certain time frame to issue its decision. It is a fight over the time — a fight where who is right and who is wrong is very clear.”
Student Hossam Fahmy representing the pro-revolution Voice of the Square movement said that the state is pushing the students away from believing in democracy and peaceful change, and that this is the greatest threat to the country’s youth.
Despite the repeated denial of representatives of the Voice of Egypt Students coalition to Mada Masr of any affiliation to the state or the ministry, the revolutionary students assert that the support the coalition receives from state authorities is fact and not simply speculation.
“What we say is factual information not speculation,” Fahmy said. “The ministry formed this coalition in March 2013 inside the building of the ministry where the coalition would hold its meetings. The ministry financed this elections from its budget which is our money.”
He called for investigations into these allegations, and suggested it was a case of “administrative and financial corruption” that would require ministerial resignations.
The press remarks of the legal advisor of the ministerial committee overseeing the elections appear to confirm these allegations. Sayed al-Araby told privately owned Al-Watan newspaper that he was unable to review the five appeals filed against the elections results — one of which was behind the ministry’s contentious decision.
He claimed that he was not allowed by the ministry to look into them, which could be an indication that the ministry took a unilateral decision bypassing the committee overseeing the elections.
“The scene was ridiculously engineered, and Araby’s remarks exposes the ministry,” Shalaby said.
Ali said it falls into a larger framework of state attempts to challenge independent work by all possible means.
“This is an attempt to destroy independent students who do not belong to political parties or movements,” he said. “Those are the students who cannot be directed through a phone call from the ministry.”
He compared the decision to the state crackdown on independent labor syndicates and unions. Professor in the Cairo University’s faculty of science and founder of March 9 Movement for the Independence of the Universities Laila Souief agreed with Ali. She asserted that the state has historically challenged all forms of self-organization, especially among youth.
“Do not try to hide your affiliations or identities, it is not about that,” she said. “It is about your independence and organization.”
Sixteen rights organizations released a statement on Monday declaring their rejection of the ministry’s decision, describing it as an “an unjustified coup on the will of the students.”
“This decision comes as part of the systematic targeting of official and unofficial forms of student organization, which started with the ministry’s amendments to the bylaws of the university that imposed unfair conditions for candidacy,” the statement said.
These conditions stipulate that students students running for elections should have paid university tuition fees, and not be subject to any disciplinary penalties by the administration or be affiliated with any terrorist or unlawful organization.
The statement warns that the state is only managing to push increasing numbers of young people and others to see elections as futile so long as the results are not to the liking of state authorities.