Classes canceled, condensed and deferred: North Sinai students in limbo amid military operation

After waiting four months for his second semester to resume, Soliman Mohamed, who is a first-year student at Arish University’s Faculty of Education, has been occupying his spare time by working at a fast food cart in central Arish.

“Right now, we should be studying at university,” he tells Mada Masr. “But because classes have been suspended, young people are busying themselves with anything that can cover their daily expenses.”

Classes have been on pause in North Sinai universities since the start of Operation Sinai 2018, the large-scale military operation that began in February. And amid this long suspension, many of Mohamed’s classmates are also turning to a diverse range jobs to try and make ends meet.

However, with the hardships that have beset North Sinai’s economy, their options have been limited. Mohamed says that some of his classmates have taken up work as microbus drivers.

In early April, the privately owned Sinai University transferred graduating seniors in all of its six majors from Arish to its Qantara branch and October 6 University. Classes for its non-graduating students, however, as well as those for all other students in North Sinai’s public universities and institutes, continued to be suspended for the next four months.

There was coordination between military and university figures to bring some state of normalcy back to student life in June, but university officials tell Mada Masr that an initial agreement on security measures fell through. For Sinai University’s non-graduating students, this meant a transfer to other branches outside of the governorate in late June. For students enrolled at the public Sinai University and North Sinai’s four institutions of higher education, which include the High Institute for Engineering and Technology, the High Institute for Tourism and Hotels, and the High Institute for Business and Computer Science, the second semester would resume in late June and July — only to end one week later for some.

The breakdown in talks to establish security measures, coupled with the recent uptick in militancy in North Sinai, has placed the economic and logistical burden of transfers onto students.

Promises that never materialized

On June 8, Brigadier General Sherif al-Araishi, the chief of staff for the North Sinai security directorate, said that classes in Arish would resume at public and private universities and institutes after Eid al-Fitr, which fell on June 14–15. Araishi’s announcement, which came during a June 8 visit by former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, the president’s assistant for national and strategic projects, was welcomed by the Sinai community.

Nevertheless, this anticipation that life might partially be restored in the peninsula did not last long.

Despite Araishi’s statement, Sinai University announced on June 15 that it would go through with the transfer of its non-graduating students to cities outside the Sinai Peninsula. The university, which is owned by businessman Hassan Rateb, confirmed that classes for these students would resume after months of delay. According to the announcement, pharmacy students would be transferred from Arish to the university’s Qantara branch and resume classes on June 22, with students in the facilities of communications, management, and information technology to take up classes on June 26 in Qantara. Sinai University’s engineering and dentistry students were transferred to the October 6 University, with classes set to resume on June 23.

Arish social media users reacted negatively to the decision to transfer classes outside the governorate, creating a Facebook group and hashtag under the banner “No to the University of Sinai transfer.” Both forums generated significant traffic.

Arish citizens have interpreted the transfer of Sinai University’s operations from Arish to Qantara as the withdrawal of the largest investment capital from the governorate and its capital city. This is, in the eyes of many, a threat to the already deteriorating security and economic situation in the governorate — particularly since the timing of the decision coincided with decisions to reimpose restrictions on civilian travel and fuel supplies for public transport in light of recent incidents of violence in the governorate.

Rejected demands and consecutive meetings

The reason for the quick administrative reversal is rooted in a breakdown in security negotiations that took place between the June 15 announcement and Mehleb’s visit a few days earlier, university officials tell Mada Masr.

A source in Sinai University’s administration, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that the university received a notification from the Armed Forces after Mehleb’s visit, which directed the university staff to resume classes in its Arish branch for all students and faculties after Eid al-Fitr. Accordingly, the source adds, the university’s management met with all departments in its Qantara branch to establish a mechanism for the return of students, as well as coordinated vehicles to drive students from different pickup points to campus.

However, according to the source, at the start of the week preceding the Eid al-Fitr break, an official from the university called a high-ranking military official in Arish to make three security-related demands to ensure students’ safety. The university official asked that the military facilitate the movement of university-affiliated busses across the West Qantara passenger ferry dock so that students could avoid long waiting hours, organize security escorts for buses traveling to Arish, and reinstall a military checkpoint in front of the university’s gate in preparation for any potential emergencies that might occur during the semester.

According to the source, the military official refused the first and second requests, while promising to discuss the third with security personnel in the governorate.

In the days following the call between the military official and the university employee, the security situation in North Sinai began to deteriorate. Three Armed Forces officers were killed at a militant-controlled checkpoint west of Arish, an attack that the Islamic State-affiliated militant group Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for, and two civilians were killed in front of their of houses in separate incidents. The attacks pushed the Sinai University administration to transfer classes for non-graduating classes to its Qantara branch and to October 6 University, the source adds.

The information shared by the administrative source at Sinai University was corroborated by a statement published by Hossam al-Rifai, the member of Parliament representing the city of Arish, also on June 15. In a post on his official Facebook page, Rifai said that a security official had already given approval for universities and institutes to resume classes in Arish. However, he added, “It seems that things did not go as expected.”

Rifai organized a meeting to discuss the decision with students’ parents in the main office of Rateb, the owner of Sinai University.

Before the meeting, which was planned to take place on June 19, the North Sinai governorate issued a statement announcing that it would hold two meetings of its own: one on June 18 in the governorate’s headquarters with officials from universities, which would be in preparation for the second meeting, scheduled for June 20 at an Armed Forces facility. The stated purpose of the second meeting was to discuss ways to resume the educational process in all public and private universities and institutes.

These meetings led to the announcement that classes for graduating seniors at Arish University and institutes would resume on June 23, while the North Sinai Governorate vowed to “study the situation of non-graduating students at Arish University, Sinai University and the four institutes.”

Sinai University decided that classes for non-graduating students would resume at its Qantara branch at the end of June, and not in Arish. In a sign that it accepted that classes would take place outside North Sinai, and in an attempt to quell the anger of residents over decisions to transfer non-graduating students away from their campuses, the governorate announced that cheap accommodation would be offered to the engineering and dentistry students who now had to study at October 6 University.

Increased expenses

Many parents braced for a shock after the decision to transfer Sinai University students was announced, due to the high costs that would ensue.

Despite the governorate’s offer of affordable dormitories, many of the engineering students enrolled at October 6 University had to rent apartments. For some, the accommodation on offer was too far away from campus, and others were simply unable to access it due to poor communication on the part of the North Sinai Governorate.

Students say that apartments were extremely expensive, starting from LE6,000 and going up to LE8,000 per month, with brokers defending the increases by pointing out that these rentals would only be for the months of June and July, and that shorter rental periods meant increased prices.

Students transferred to the Qantara branch of Sinai University have also been faced with steep rental costs. Those who spoke to Mada Masr say that the apartments they could find were very far from campus, some of which were located in remote areas where tuk tuks are the only available transportation options, a commute that they say is particularly dangerous for women.

The perceived security risks for women studying at the university prompted some families to send parental guardians for the two-month study period. One woman, who traveled with her daughter to Qantara, says that many families only agreed to enroll their daughters at the university after high school to avoid having them move out of the governorate and live far from home.

In addition to the distance, many students who were granted scholarships now must pay more for travel and accommodation expenses, she adds.

A one-week semester

The state-owned Arish University announced on July 2 that classes would resume for non-graduating students on July 7 in its facilities, and that buses would be assigned to transport students who had left the governorate following the commencement of the military operation back to Arish. North Sinai’s public institutes followed suit.

A faculty member at Arish University’s Faculty of Physical Education tells Mada Masr that classes are not taking place in any meaningful way, however. The purpose of resuming classes is just to hold exams as soon as possible, the faculty member says, adding that instructors have been directed to hand students booklets containing summaries of the curriculum.

A teaching assistant at the Arish-based High Institute For Business and Computer Science says that the institute’s management asked faculty members to teach the entire curriculum in one week and begin administering exams the following week.

“There is no explanation of the course materials. Students come to the institute to collect a few summary papers to help them sit the exam the following week,” the teaching assistant says.

Students at Arish University confirm to Mada Masr that they are only going to campus to collect curriculum summaries.

“Professors told us we will pass, but we have to show up in the first week and be present,” one student says. “Instead of giving a lecture, the professor referred us, without any explanation, to the parts of the curriculum which will come up in the exam.”

Mourad Higazy 

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