Algerian universities, usually enclaves of peace and perceived as bastions of reason and enlightenment, have in the past few weeks been the site of several acts of violence, raising concerns over the spread of physical violence from other sectors of society.
Last month a dispute between local and African students over a televised African Cup of Nations soccer match at a university residence in Blida, about 50 kilometres south of Algiers, left several people injured and resulted in damaged property.
In another incident in mid-February, students from Tizi-Ouzou University, about 100 kilometres east of the capital, took to the streets to protest the murder of one of their classmates.
Writing in the Arabic El Khabar newspaper, media education writer Mustapha Besmati, said that leadership contests among different student associations and teachers’ unions were becoming opportunities to use "physical force and violence instead of dialogue".
Two weeks ago skirmishes erupted in the faculty of political sciences at the University of Algiers, ironically located about one kilometre from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research headquarters when a group burst into a meeting held to vote on the setting up of an office for the national higher education union Conseil National des Enseignants du Supérieur or CNES.
Those involved were reportedly members of the same national union who now find themselves torn between two splinter groups: a national bureau chaired by Abdelhafid Malit after his election at a congress held last December in Constantine; the second led by Abdelmalek Azzi who was elected as the new national coordinator on 12 January 2017.
The incident resulted in acts of aggression, complaints to security forces and calls for further teachers’ strikes.
In an online report by the Middle East Monitor, Mohamed Rezig, CNES coordinator at the University of Algiers, was quoted as saying; “An army of security guards and baltaguia [an Egyptian word used to refer to thugs] were sent to us. They presented themselves as part of the student organisations, but in reality they had nothing to do with the university.” According to the Middle East Monitor, Rezig blamed the university rector, whom he has described as the “mafia”.
A ‘disastrous precedent’
According to the same report, Professor Louisa Ait Hamdouche described the incident as “a disastrous precedent, not just for the university, the academics, the students and all those who work there, but for the whole country. The banalisation of violence has no limits, and this has only been possible because of the scandalous levels of… impunity.”
In his comments on the events, President of Algiers University, Professor Rabah Cheriet, said that an “unauthorised encounter of teachers’ representatives degenerated into violence and some individuals wanted to get the conflict out on the street”.
Following recommendations from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Professor Tahar Hadjar, Minister of Higher Education, put a freeze on the activities of both wings until they comply with trade union rules and legislations.
Lecturers and teachers in Algeria have been on strike since late January involving members of the National Union of Education and Training Staff, its affiliate the National Union of Secondary and Technical Education Teachers as well as the Autonomous National Council of Secondary and Technical Education Teachers.
Dissent is commonplace in universities and peaceful protest is recognised as a "civilised" way in which to express views, opinions and concerns in Algeria. Thus the upsurge in physical violence in institutions of higher education, has generated concern.
Algiers-based psychologist Feiza Boudouhene said: “Although violence is of common occurrence in our society, what happened at the universities suggests that violence has taken on alarming dimensions because… universities in our perception should remain symbols of education, knowledge and the formation of our elite and leaders of tomorrow.”
Sociologist Omar Oundinia from the faculty of sociology at Belkacem Saadallah’s university in the capital recommended the setting up of specialised university hubs to serve as cultural and intellectual spaces for debates’.
"The introduction of diversity in establishing institutes and universities at national level will lead to strong and coherent social relations between communities at university away from regional and regionalist geographical affiliations."
In a suggestion to curb violence at universities, Fares Benjaghloul, president of the national union of Algerian students, called for "for the strict implementation of the code of ethics and its full respect by the whole university community".
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