EGYPT: Disqualifications, apathy mar student elections

Hassan Abbas, an arts student at Cairo University, did not know there were student union elections until he saw Islamist students staging a protest against their disqualification from candidate lists. In recent weeks the country's 18 public universities have held student polls marked by widespread apathy as well as fiery protests by ineligible students, particularly from the Muslim Brotherhood - said to be the largest opposition group on Egypt's campuses. Political or religious student groups have been banned from student leadership.

"When I inquired about the election, I was told that candidacy was allowed for just six hours on the first day we returned to the university after a long holiday," Abbas told University World News. He added that the majority of his colleagues were also not aware of the poll. "So we did not vote. No wonder the bulk of winners were in fact appointed by college administrators."

The four-stage elections for members and leaders of seven student union committees at the 18 public universities were described as "the worst in recent years" by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a non-governmental organisation that monitored them.

"Interference by security bodies, university administrators' control of the process and the inability of candidates to reach students all worsened the situation," the association said in a statement.

The elections ended late last month and were conducted according to amendments to statutes introduced last year. Under the changes, student groups formed on a religious or political basis are banned. The laws also stipulate that seminars and conferences may only be held with the approval of a college's deputy dean, and that a 'consultant' belonging to the teaching staff must be appointed to every student union committee.

Eligible voters and candidates are also required to pay their university fees in advance. Under the same regulations, students wishing to run in elections have to provide evidence of previous student activity.

"These restrictions have resulted in a very low vote turnout and a boycott by most political student groups of this election," the association said. "Students with political leanings who had wished to stand for election in a very few colleges were disqualified on the pretext they had no previous activity or didn't pay the enrolment fees."

In the absence of qualified candidates, administrators in most institutions across Egypt had to appoint members and heads of student union committees, according to local media reports. Members of unions were appointed in 13 colleges of Cairo University while elections were held in seven colleges only. Appointments were also made in 75% of the colleges of Helwan University, south of Cairo.

University officials denied claims the polls were restricted or rigged. "The elections were fair and honest," Minister of Higher Education Hani Helal said in press release. "No student was excluded on religious or political grounds. All students are like our children."

Unconvinced, disqualified students, mainly belonging to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, held "a day of mourning" when the election results were announced. Angry students in most universities showed up with black badges on their arms and gags on their mouths. At Helwan University, they carried coffins symbolising the death of free elections and raised black placards reading "A black day for the university".

There were threats to form alternative non-official student unions. But university administrators warned that students taking part in "illegal unions" would be punished.