EGYPT: German University in Cairo reports arson threat

The German University in Cairo, a private Egyptian institution established in partnership with German universities, has reported receiving a threat from an anonymous arsonist. The alleged threat was made just days after the university announced suspension of classes due to a dispute with the student union over regulations for elections.

Dozens of students staged a protest outside the campus on the outskirts of Cairo last Tuesday. Police were called, but no violence was reported.

The university in Cairo, established in 2003 in partnership with the University of Ulm and the University of Stuttgart, said in an e-mail sent to parents earlier this month that it had decided to suspend studies for a week as it feared for the safety of students.

The institution, the first German university outside Germany, warned that longer suspension would negatively affect the academic season.

"We hope for your cooperation [in] enabling the university to perform its educational role and end the academic year 2011-12 in the scheduled time according to the academic calendar approved for this year," the university told parents.

It accused "a limited number of students" of planning to create friction with staff members.

If it was not possible to hold elections for the current academic year, the e-mail said, "the university would apply the law by appointing the top-ranked students of faculties as members for this year's union."

The e-mail angered students who saw it as an attempt to antagonise their parents against them and curb their freedom of expression.

"This letter gives the impression that we are kindergarten children who must be punished for misbehaving," said an engineering student who gave her name as Aya. "The university administration should realise that such tactics cannot work in post-revolutionary Egypt.

"Like all Egyptians, we have the right to express ourselves about how our institution should be run," she insisted.

Most of Egypt's public and private universities have been gripped by turmoil in the wake of a popular uprising that forced former president Hosni Mubarak to step down in February, after 30 years in power. The German University in Cairo is the latest to feel the heat.

"Parents are one of the main partners in the education process," said the university Vice-president Laila Mahran. "There is no insult to students or underestimating them in informing their parents about the situation. This shows our respect for the confidence they put in us," she added.

According to the student union, the dispute erupted due to the administration's refusal to accept their proposals for upcoming student elections and to put these proposals to a student vote.

"The administration continues its rejection of the statutes we proposed and uses threats in dealing with students," said Ahmed Hassan, deputy chair of student union.

The student union said it planned to escalate action, including filing a lawsuit against the administration for "unjustifiably" suspending classes. "Demonstrations and strikes are legal rights," it said in a statement.

Denying that the administration received proposals from students, vice-president Mahran said in a press statement that some students were bent on growing the crisis.

"The administration has already extended the deadline for registration for the student union elections until 12 December to give students enough time to come up with draft bylaws," she said.

She accused unspecified people of spreading a false idea that the university had violated students' freedom. "The current statutes pertaining to students' elections are the ones in force in all other Egyptian universities," said Mahran.

She added that student union's insistence that the new statutes should not be approved by the university administration contradicted Egyptian laws regulating the creation of private universities.