Al-Azhar students protest over mass food poisoning

Thousands of Al-Azhar University students have staged protests demanding the removal of top university officials and an investigation into a food poisoning incident in residences that led to nearly 500 students being hospitalised. The university’s president was dismissed on Wednesday.

Food poisoning is not uncommon in Egyptian university dormitories, where basic hygiene standards are often not observed, but Al-Azhar University's outbreak is the biggest in years.

The poisonings occurred during a meal served in student residences in Cairo’s Nasr City district on 1 April. The university has two dormitories, one for female students and the other for males.

The student union released a statement demanding a prompt investigation into the incident.

The director of the Demerdash Poison Centre was quoted by Egypt's state information service as saying that samples taken from the patients proved negative regarding food poisoning, but that the students had suffered acute intestinal catarrh. He said all the patients were in a stable condition.

State news agency MENA reported that a Health Ministry delegation was scheduled to visit the student hostel to inspect food safety measures.

Following the poisoning incident, hundreds of students expressed anger by demonstrating outside the residence halls, blocking roads and chanting slogans against the university’s management as well as pointing out that their repeated complaints about poor services had been ignored.

On 2 April, violent clashes broke out between students and staff at Al-Azhar University and students began marching towards Al-Azhar Sheikhdom in Cairo’s Darrasa district to demand that the university take responsibility for a mass poisoning.

The university is affiliated with Al-Azhar mosque, the world's foremost seat of Sunni Muslim learning, and awards degrees in sciences and humanities as well as in religious studies.

Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar – whose offices were attacked – is the university's ultimate authority.

El-Tayeb suspended the official responsible for the residences as well as the official in charge of student nutrition, ordered an investigation into the incident and called for those responsible to be held to account. He also asked the university to review the food system in residences.

Nevertheless, on 3 April thousands of students again marched from the campus in Nasr City to the Al-Azhar Sheikhdom to call for removal of the university's president and demand an apology from El-Tayeb. Students blocked a road, leading to tensions with motorists.

The supreme council of Al-Azhar dismissed Al-Azhar University President Osama al-Abd, who was appointed by the supreme council of the armed forces in 2011.

The decision prompted students to end their protests, and the council formed a committee to conduct elections that will be held within two weeks to select a new president.

Meanwhile, the public prosecutor has also ordered an investigation into the incident. On Tuesday, President Mohammed Mursi, leader of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, visited one of the several Cairo hospitals to which victims were taken.

Egypt’s Revolution Youth Movement voiced full solidarity with the students of Al-Azhar University and deep regret over the poisoning cases, according to Middle East Online.

It claimed the incident was the result of administrative negligence and corruption within university city, and denounced university officials who rushed to deny responsibility, noting that what happened could not be considered “a transient mistake. It is a heinous crime.”

The Revolution Youth Movement also accused the Muslim Brotherhood of plotting the poisoning to rally public opinion against the Al-Azhar institution, with the aim of dismissing senior scholars and appointing a new pro-Brotherhood religious authority.

It claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged move came after the Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh refused to accept a controversial draft law on Islamic bonds.