EGYPT: Universities in fix over police removal

As advocates of university independence celebrate a landmark court ruling ordering the removal of police guards from campuses in Egypt, leaders of government-run universities are considering the costs of recruiting civilian guards.

The High Administrative Court on 23 October upheld a 2008 ruling from a lower court banning the presence of police on the campus of Cairo University, Egypt's largest public institution, and said such guards undermined the independence of universities enshrined in the Egyptian constitution.

The ruling, which is irrevocable, ordered that police units, which have been in place since the early 1980s and answer directly to the Ministry of the Interior, be replaced with civilian guards.

Cairo University professors had filed a suit claiming that Interior Ministry security units on campus were illegal and should be replaced by university-employed civilian guards. They argued that security guards controlled by the state interfered in university activities, including student elections, and repressed protestors.

The Egyptian government said it would comply with the ruling after receiving a notice from the court.

But university officials say a problem lies in financing.

"Our university has not yet received any instructions from the ministry of higher education on how to deal with the issue," said Atef el-Awam, Vice-president of Ain Shams University in Cairo, another public university.

"I think each university should provide enough financial resources in order to set up an efficient security system to protect its facilities and other things on the campus," he added.

To Mohammad Abdel Hamid, Vice-president of the government-run Helwan University south of Cairo, the ruling has created a "real crisis" for public universities.

"There are around 135,000 students, 6,000 teaching staff and 11,000 employees at Helwan University. This is in addition to buildings and facilities, whose total value reaches billions of [Egyptian] pounds. They need large numbers of well trained security personnel to be protected. Who will foot the bill?" he asked.

The higher education ministry has yet to say who will do the security job in universities and how it will be financed.

"The ruling must be enforced in full and in all universities," said Osama el-Helw, Director of the Sawasia Centre for Human Rights, a Cairo-based non-governmental organisation. "I am concerned that the change of security guards on campuses will be only in uniforms, by recruiting plainclothes detectives from the ministry of the interior," he added.

Meanwhile Ahmed el-Gohari, president of the government-run Fayoum University in southern Egypt, was quoted in the local press as saying that his institution was not obliged to comply with the recent ruling.

"This ruling is not applicable to Fayoum University, as it is pertaining to Cairo University only. There is no similar lawsuit to remove police from our university."

At Beni Sueif University, another public university in southern Egypt, civilian security units were set up 18 months ago to protect facilities on the campus from theft and damage, according to its President, Mohammad Youssef.

"We have not received any official notification that the police will be removed from our university," he said. "We will need a transitional period to replace them with highly qualified civilian guards to fill the void."

Agreeing, Moustafa Kamal, President of Assiut University in southern Egypt, suggested a four-year transitional period.

"The security department, affiliated to the university administration, is not yet qualified enough to replace the campus police," he said. "Our university will need a specialised private security company to provide guards and groom some of our employees to keep security on the campus. This will take time and needs a lot of money."