EGYPT: Trouble at university divides academics

When a group of lecturers pushing for the independence of universities in Egypt went to Ain Shams University, the country's second biggest public higher education institution, they did not expect to be chased by armed youths, spark campus protests and have a brush with the law. But that is what happened and the incident has divided the academic community.

The group led by Dr Abdel Gelil Moustafa, a professor of medicine at the prestigious Cairo University, said they visited Ain Shams University in north-east Cairo to rally support for a recent court ruling ordering police guards out of universities.

"We went there to acquaint students with the reasons for this landmark ruling," said Moustafa. "Much to our surprise, we were confronted by a gang of thugs, who not only insulted us but attempted to attack us."

The 4 November incident made headlines. The administration of Ain Shams lodged a request with the nation's chief prosecutor to order an investigation into it. Advocates of university independence held a series of protests to denounce the alleged attack on the lecturers and what they described as collusion of police guards at Ain Shams University.

"We will continue to familiarise students with the court ruling [removing police from campuses] and press the government to implement it," said Moustafa, a co-founder of the pro-university independence March 9 Movement.

The Egyptian government has been posting police guards on the campuses of state-run universities since the early 1980s, saying they are crucial to protect students and facilities. Following the recent irreversible ruling, the government said it would comply. However government critics accuse it of foot-dragging.

A video broadcast on Egypt's privately-owned Dream TV showed knife-wielding youths chasing after Moustafa, his colleagues and their student supporters.

To Moustafa and human rights groups, they are thugs employed by police to scare off lecturers and students. To the administration of Ain Shams University, they are students loyal to the institution.

"They wanted to protect the university from an intrusion by persons who have no relation to the university," Ain Shams commented in a statement. It urged the Cairo University, to which those lecturers belong, to question them for "trespassing the [Ain Shams] campus and attacking its students".

"We have not been notified by Cairo University of any plan to quiz us," said Moustafa. "Besides, the allegations made by the Ain Shams University administration reflect a wrong understanding of academic freedom. As academics, we have the right to visit any university in the country."