EGYPT: The Tahrir Square spirit lingers on campus

I have been living in Cairo, arriving a few months prior to the revolution that began in September last year, and saw then how oppression permeated every aspect of life. Most people are familiar with the features of an unjust and dictatorial regime: police brutality, vote-rigging, media censorship and rampant corruption. However, the reality is much more sinister.

In Cairo the oppression deeply infiltrated society, and I observed how profoundly it affected the lives of every individual, becoming an integral part of life that Egyptians learned to live with.

Although many of my friends in Cairo's universities are active and animated, they were acutely aware of their lack of freedom both inside the university and outside it in society, and how the two are intrinsically linked.

I recall a depressing conversation with a fresh graduate, who said: "Real change can't be made in universities until [former president Hosni] Mubarak and his whole family disappears. Hope? Not right now."

The fall of Mubarak turned out to be only the beginning of a succession of nationwide strikes and protests. After the revolution, lawyers, workers, teachers and journalists began launching their own battles to voice their grievances against the system and to call for change. They are unanimous: their goal is the complete uprooting of the old regime in order to protect the spirit of the revolution.

Universities are no exception.

The nature of student political activity in universities often reflects the degree of political freedom a country enjoys. The university, a hotbed for developing minds to expand and champion ideas, is the ideal brewing ground for political dissidence.

A government tolerant of critique usually goes side-by-side with universities that accommodate a diverse body of student political groups and movements. It is therefore unsurprising that any political activity which jeopardises the credibility of a dictatorial regime leads to a harsh clamp-down on universities.

In Cairo University, the huge increase of participants in student elections held at the end of March demonstrated the overwhelming demand for radical change. Before the revolution, only students with a 'good reputation' were allowed to run. According to Nadia Abou Shady, a student in the faculty of political science, this vague statement was actually a check on the student's political affiliation.

In 2006, the names of 520 male and female nominees of the Muslim Brotherhood were struck off the initial election lists at Helwan University and 28 students were arrested in their university dorms following the controversy.

In 2008, two students from the Resistance Group in the same university filed a legal complaint against police officers for physical assault, believing that the attacks were because of a conference held by the group which criticised the National Democratic Party (NDP).

On the 21 April, I visited Cairo University to meet friends. I had read that there were protests and strikes on the campus following the revolution, but I was amazed to see a large group gathered around the faculty of mass communication.

I heard the familiar words: "Leave, leave! Strike until the fall of the regime!". These words were chanted in Tahrir Square, and they are still being chanted in Yemen, Syria and Libya. Why were the very same words being chanted at the university, two months after the ousting of Mubarak?

Samy Abdel Aziz, the dean of the faculty and a prominent ex-member of the NDP, criticised the uprising during its initial stages and compared Mubarak's 'inspirational leadership' to that of Churchill and Gandhi. His attempt to influence the media with anti-revolution views angered students, to the extent that they staged massive sit-ins and protests for one demand: his resignation.

However, two months later, he remained firmly in his position. Various attempts were made to appease students, including promises of reforms, but to no avail. A third-year student in the faculty, who I know only as Enas, commented: "He is in fact an amazing professor. But we cannot tolerate anybody who supported the old-regime. You have read about how badly students were treated even after the revolution? This is proof that all elements of the old regime must go."

She was referring to an incident on 26 March, when the military police stormed into the faculty, disbanding students with cattle prods and stun-guns, and injuring protesting students and professors.

This occurred immediately after a law was passed that banned demonstrations, since they 'hindered work process'.

These protests did not appear out of a vacuum. Although the demands are the immediate resignation of university figures, I have seen that there is a deep yearning for a fundamental change in education in Egypt.

Hoda Zeydan, an Arabic teacher and a masters graduate from the Cairo University, believes the education system needs its own revolution: "Each education minister contends to remove what his predecessor has implemented. For this reason the education process remains unstable without real development."

Education suffered in particular during the Mubarak regime. "When the people can't think, they can't stand up for themselves. Mubarak wanted his people to be as stupid as possible so that he and his regime were unopposed," she continued.

Concrete plans and strategies to reform education will come later, but to the students protesting, this cannot be achieved without the complete uprooting of the old system.

A slogan in front of the faculty of mass communication read: 'The students of the faculty demand the trial of all the symbols of corruption in Egypt and the resignation of the chairman of the university and the dean of the faculty."

Ultimately, these protests are not just about the university. It is about Egypt and the protection of the revolution that shook the whole country. The Tahrir Square spirit lingers on campuses, and students are determined to hold on to it.

* Davina Levy is a student from Hong Kong, currently in Cairo for the third year of her Cambridge University degree in Middle Eastern studies.