President promises freedom of activity for university students

Egypt’s first elected civilian President Mohammed Mursi has promised to remove decades-old restrictions on student activities in the country’s universities.

“Students suffered marginalisation due to injustices of an era, which passed and will not return,” Mursi told a student gathering in Cairo.

He was referring to security agencies’ interference in academic affairs under the 30-year rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in a popular revolt early last year. Mursi, an engineering professor, took office in June after winning milestone presidential elections.

“You are free in universities and there are no curbs on your movements, way of thinking and activities,” Mursi told more than 2,000 students from Egypt’s public and private universities.

Mubarak’s police were often accused of harassing and detaining dissenting students and lecturers, mainly Islamists.

Since Mubarak’s ouster, Islamists have become the dominant power on Egypt’s political scene. Mursi, detained at least twice under Mubarak, hails from the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Addressing the students, Mursi pledged to promote higher education and scientific research.

“Egypt will not achieve progress without advanced scientific research and a revolution in all stages of education,” he said. “We want a comprehensive national development and you are the tools and driving forces of this development.”

In a bid to allay fears in Egypt about the rise of political Islamism, Mursi pledged to make Egypt a “civil, democratic and modern state”.

“Egypt today is a civil state. It will not be a theocracy or a military state,” he said.

In a surprise move last month, Mursi ousted army generals who ruled Egypt after Mubarak’s toppling, and retook legislative authority from the military, triggering concerns over massive presidential powers. “I've regained the legislative powers to safeguard them, not to misuse them,” he told the students.

He backed a suggestion made by one student at the meeting that senior university administrators be elected. “But this requires a legal amendment, which can happen after the legislative elections” due earlier next year, Mursi explained.

Under student pressure, several state-run universities in Egypt last year elected their academic leaders through direct vote. Under Mubarak, university leaders were appointed based on recommendations from state institutions, mainly the police.

Lauding students’ role in the anti-Mubarak revolt, Mursi asked university administrators to consider a proposal allowing representatives of students to attend meetings of university boards.

The head of the nation’s student union, Ahmed Omar, said at the meeting that his union was drafting university regulations that would express students' interests, and that these would be presented to the Ministry of Higher Education.

Mustafa Fouad, a liberal student, complained after the hour-long meeting with Mursi that the bulk of students invited by authorities to attend were from the Muslim Brotherhood.

“They excessively clapped for the president and deprived other students of the chance to pose questions to Mursi in the short time slot allowed for this,” Fouad told a local TV station.

There was no official comment. Islamist students were excluded from annual gatherings arranged for Mubarak, according to insiders.

“Students allowed to attend were hand-picked after massive investigations by the [now-dismantled] State Security Service,” said Ahmed al-Hassisi, a senior official at a government institution tasked with organising such meetings.

Al-Hassisi denied that the presidency or police had interfered by selecting students for the meeting with Mursi. “After the revolution, students no longer fear. They have a lot of freedom to express their opinions,” added the official.