EGYPT: Authorities moves swiftly on university reform

Less than a month after long-standing president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising, Egypt's higher education authorities have taken steps towards long-sought-after independence for public universities. State police are leaving campuses, and new student union elections will be held within months.

Presiding over his maiden meeting as Minister of Education, Ahmed Gamal Moussa told the Higher Council for Universities, which oversees academic institutions, that student unions will be dissolved and elections for new unions will be held within 60 days of re-opening universities after a month-long mid-year vacation.

Students opposing the Mubarak regime said recent student union elections had been rigged in favour of students loyal to the police and the formerly ruling National Democratic Party.

"The new elections will be held in a free and democratic atmosphere," local media quoted Moussa as saying.

Ten out of Egypt's 18 governmental universities were due to reopen this weekend. The eight others are expected to reopen a week later, apparently for security reasons.

Still, in an obvious sign of drastic changes in Egypt's academic life post-Mubarak, all public universities have started replacing campus police with civilian guards. The move comes more than four months after a court ordered the police to leave universities, where they have been stationed since 1981.

"Our university has completely done without the campus police," said Hossam Kamel, President of Cairo University, Egypt's largest public university. "Even before the court ruling was issued, we set up two civilian guard units for the medical and mass communication schools. After the ruling, we set up similar units at other institutions of the university."

He added that campus civilian guard numbers are being boosted. "We have advertised for the recruitment of more civilian guards and received applications from more than 6,000 persons. We will choose the most qualified personnel among them."

Kamel is not concerned about possible student protests on campus. "The anti-regime demonstrations in Al Tharir Square [in central Cairo] were led by young people, including students. They were very refined. Students will need to express their views inside universities."

He disclosed a plan to select representatives from each college of Cairo University to arrange for a conference to draw up a formula for university development.

Removing the campus police has drawn applause from lecturers and students alike.

"This step marks the return of university independence from the restrictions imposed by the security agencies," said Safwat Maadi, a lecturer at Cairo University. "It reflects the university administration's positive response to the January 25 Revolution, which toppled the Mubarak regime after 30 years of oppression."

However, Maadi entertains some fears. "I hope that public universities will not respond to suggestions to keep some guards belonging to the Interior Ministry to train civilian guards."

Lecturers and students have long complained that the presence of campus police infringed academic freedom and the constitution, which enshrines university independence.

"I never felt free while policemen were everywhere on the campus," said Medhat Tharwat, a medical student at Cairo University. "They often kept a close eye on students and their political activities. Their removal is a step in the right direction," he added.

Also welcoming the step Dr Abdel Gelil Moustafa, a medical professor and prominent member of the pro-university independence March 9 Movement, urged presidents of public universities to promote academic freedom.

"It is necessary to elect presidents of universities and deans of colleges instead of appointing them on the basis of their loyalty to the government and security agencies," he said.

Egypt is having a new wave of academic freedom. Though not similar to Indonesia, the current event almost resembles the situation the Indonesian academic people over a decade ago. It is good news that students at the universities there can freely express their will without oppression from the governmental agencies, i. e. policemen.

Tiyo Widodo