University students representing more than 19 student activist groups and a number of student unions gathered Tuesday at Cairo University to object to the manner in which a new list of rules regulating student life is being put together, as well as the content of the proposed regulations.
Students from the Muslim Brotherhood, the April 6 Youth Movement, a host of political parties, private universities, and Cairo University were all present in the gathering of around 250 protesters.
Student unions have long objected to regulations that limit student freedoms and their political and union activities on campuses. In the past, student union leaders were vetted by Central Security and all events had to be approved by the university administrations, which reportedly needed clearance from Central Security. The new regulations, not yet issued but recently leaked, suggest that efforts to reverse the stifling restrictions of the old regime still face major hurdles.
Since Saturday a group called Egypt’s Coalition of Student Unions, which critics say is not representative of the larger student bodies, have been meeting in a military-owned conference hall to discuss the proposed regulations.
In the regulations leaked from these meetings, posted by an activist group on their website, there remains a ban on student groups' political activity on campus. The regulations also continue to stipulate that groups cannot organize events unless they get approval for every facet of them, particulary for events for public speakers. However, in the leaked regulations, a committee from the student union would be able to make the political decision on which speakers would be allowed at their respective universities.
“The way they are putting these regulations together is secretive to a very suspicious degree,” said Mohamed Nagy, a third-year commerce student and member of Moqawma (Resistance), a reformist student movement at Helwan University.
Protesting students complain that the coalition – which is comprised of the heads of student unions – is not representative of student bodies because they were elected last March in ad hoc elections with very low voter turnout. They will be setting the regulations.
Cairo University pulled out of the convention, along with seven private universities, and joined Tuesday’s demonstration.
“Our representative went once for half an hour and saw an incredible amount of chaos and disorganization. They never called her back despite deciding to go forth with the proposed regulations,” said Mohamed Abdallah, head of Cairo University’s student union and a fourth-year agricultural engineering student.
General Mahmoud Hegazy, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), visited the convention with Higher Education Minister Moataz Khorshid. “The general said that he does not understand the technicalities of student life regulation. Why then did he come? He only spoke to us about the nation’s policies, sectarian strife and the military. What does that have to do with the conference?” Abdallah asked.
Protesters expressed discomfort with the role SCAF played in the negotiations, seeing it as another example of deals between selected civilian brokers and the military and its government.
“The Ministry for Higher Education clearly sponsored the event, with Salama expressing to students that they would like to agree on the regulations as soon as possible,” said Fatima Sirag of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.
Activists in the protest had obtained a leaked copy of the proposed “new” regulations and complain that it does not include enough changes to usher in a new era for university openness.
“Before 25 January few students believed unions or student activism had any effect. No one voted in student elections or thought they could actively change anything. We were hoping the new regulations would help change that. They don’t,” said Nagy.
“The main reason why we’re protesting the convention is that it does not offer a list of regulations that I can take back to the student body in good conscience,” Abdallah said.
For Sirag, the whole idea of a standardized system of regulations is in and of itself an inhibition.
“There should be a general charter that ties students together,” Sirag said.
Most protesters agree that the mechanism used to come up with the regulations is the main problem. The students present in the convention decided to move forward with putting the regulations together without resorting to a referendum, despite the fact that it may affect the life of students for generations to come.
“They don’t have a mandate from students, and neither do we [political forces in universities]. These regulations can only happen through a dialogue that involves all student groups, and a referendum involving all students,” Nagy said.
Over the next two days, students from the political groups and protesting unions will create their own proposed list of rules and regulations and pose it to a the student bodies of their respective universities.
“Students want to be involved, now. They want to be active,” Nagy said. “They must all be included in this process.”