EGYPT: Continuing student protests rock universities

From Cairo to Aswan, higher education institutions in Egypt have been hit by a series of sit-ins staged by students protesting against the presence of university leaders and administrators associated with the fallen government of Hosni Mubarak.

For three weeks now, students joined by some lecturers have been protesting outside the offices of university presidents demanding their "ouster" for allegedly being loyal to Mubarak, who was toppled last month in a popular revolt after 30 years in power.

"The patience of students and lecturers is running thin because their demands are not [being] met," said Dr Khaled Samir, a cardiac surgery professor in the medical school of the Cairo-based Ain Shams University, Egypt's second biggest public university.

Samir joined an open-ended protest outside the office of university President Maged el-Deeb, whom they demand should be sacked.

"We want the president of the university, deans of affiliated colleges and heads of departments be elected. Enough of the humiliation, fraud and persecution of efficient academics - practices that we suffered from for the past 30 years," Samir added.

Said Adham Ashour, a commerce student at the same university: "We will continue our protest until all university officials are ousted because they are agents of the Mubarak regime who corrupted education."

In an unprecedented move in Egyptian universities, the teaching staff at Ain Shams University's arts school last week elected a new dean, a step that has yet to be endorsed by the university president. Such posts are usually filled by appointment.

The protests, which erupted at the start of the second semester on 5 March, have blocked many classes in higher education institutions across Egypt, which is striving for a democratic transition led by the military.

The most vociferous protest, however, took place at the mass communication school of Cairo University, the country's biggest public university.

Dozens of students, joined by lecturers, picketed outside the school building, demanding the dismissal of the dean, Sami Abdel Aziz, who they accused of managing the election campaigns of Mubarak and his National Democratic Party for the past six years. Some of the students went on a hunger strike.

"Minister of Higher Education Ezzat Salama should intervene to end the crisis to protect us from thugs and take a firm decision by ordering the dean to go on leave until the university regulations are changed," said Awatef Abdel Rahman, a journalism professor, who participated in the protest.

Abdel Rahman has accused an employee loyal to the embattled dean of threatening her with death over the protest.

The drama took a u-turn on Wednesday when the military police intervened and quashed the protest by force. Seven students were injured, according to the local media.

Salama, the higher education minister, has called on university administrators to "start a dialogue" with students to allay their anger and bring life back to normal on campuses in order to resume classes.

He has formed a committee of veteran academics and law professors to draw up a solution to the crisis over the selection of administrators, "in a way that will engage the teaching staff and students in the process without violating academic traditions".

His approach has made a little impression on students, though.

"The minister has done little to respond to our demands," the Revolution's Student Union, a pro-reform grouping, said in a statement. "He insists that he does not have the power to sack universities' presidents," added the union, which is composed of students from five public and three private universities.

Their demands include free student union elections and free quality education.

"The minister has tried to pacify students by extending campaigning for student union elections from one day to three. This falls short of expectations," the new union said.

Having disbanded student unions for allegedly being the product of rigged elections under Mubarak, Egyptian universities are bracing themselves for new student elections this month, which administrators have promised will be honest and free from interference by security agencies.