Student union elections echo political rivalries

A stunning defeat recently suffered by students from Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood at most state-run universities foreshadows the country’s forthcoming parliamentary elections, according to observers.

Independents swept most seats that were up for grabs in the student union elections, dealing a heavy blow to rivals from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

“The independent students' win of most seats marks a u-turn in the balloting of the student community, who mostly used to vote for Islamists,” said Samia al-Sati, a professor of political sociology at Ain Shams University.

Unlike their landslide gains in the past two years – that is, since a popular revolt toppled the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak – Islamist students, mainly those of the Muslim Brotherhood, were outvoted in at least 13 of Egypt's 19 public universities, including Cairo, Ain Shams and Helwan in greater Cairo, according to final results.

Still, the Brotherhood students made big gains at the Islamic seminary of Al Azhar and the secular universities of Damietta and Damanhur in the Delta, and Beni Suef, Assiut and Minya in southern Egypt.

“The results may cast their shadow on the results of the parliamentary elections, as they may serve as an indication that a big chunk of votes may go to independent, liberal and revolutionary contenders,” Al-Sati told Egyptian television.

A date has not yet been set for parliamentary elections, but they are expected to be held this summer.

Egypt has been hit in recent months by a sharp dispute between the ruling Islamists and the liberal-minded opposition, who accuse the Brotherhood of failing to fulfil the objectives of the 2011 revolt that brought them to power.

Islamists were banned and oppressed under Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years.

The recent campus polls were conducted on the basis of regulations set by Islamist-led student unions. Independent students have accused unions controlled by the Brotherhood of manipulating the regulations in their favour.

Under Mubarak, student union elections were usually held under the strict supervision of state institutions, mainly security agencies.

"The Brotherhood has lost its credibility inside universities, especially after they dominated drafting the student regulations and ignored students' opinions,” said Amr Mamdouh, a member of the independent Ain Shams University liberals movement.

Ahmed Taha, spokesperson for Brotherhood students at Ain Shams, said they would accept the final result of the vote. “We have no objection to amending the student regulations provided that at least two-thirds of the new Student Union of Egypt agrees," he added.

Liberal politicians have welcomed the results as a warning message to the governing Islamists.

“These results come as a new hope for Egypt," said leading reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei. "The winning students are independents who did not run on the basis of religious platforms," added ElBaradei, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Brotherhood politicians played down the significance of the results, though. "Parliamentary elections have a different nature," Ahmed Diab, an official in the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, told the semi-official newspaper Al Ahram.

“We have confidence in the people who voted for the Brotherhood in the previous parliamentary election." The Brotherhood won nearly half of parliament's seats in Egypt's first post-Mubarak polls, held in late 2011.