Concern simmers over university guards’ arrest powers

A decision by Egypt’s state-run Supreme Council of Universities, giving security personnel the power to arrest students on campuses, has ignited fears that police-style oppression will be revived in this country that has removed two presidents in less than three years.

The decision came just before Egypt’s universities open for the new academic year on 21 September, amid worries that political turmoil in the country will spill over into educational institutions.

“I reject this move, which will make it easy to fabricate charges against students,” said Hesham Ashraf, head of the student union at Cairo University, Egypt’s biggest public university.

“The universities' security personnel are appointed employees, who are loyal to their leaders. In case of any dispute between a student and his university's leaders, the latter will exploit the arrest power to file false complaints against the student and get him prosecuted.”

In 2009, an Egyptian court ruled that police guards be removed from universities and be replaced with civilian guards charged with maintaining security on campuses.

For decades, state security agencies had kept a tight grip on universities in Egypt, detaining dissident students and having a strong say in appointing top administrators.

The nation’s academic institutions have been hit by student protests for different reasons since a popular revolt toppled former president Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. Universities have also seen bloody violence, which on several occasions involved students and security guards.

Renewed turmoil has gripped Egypt since July when the army deposed Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, following massive street demonstrations against his rule.

Presidents support move

Several presidents of universities have advocated empowering security employees, describing it as a step aimed at maintaining order on campuses.

“The goal is to make the guards better able to restore security to universities, arrest rioting students and turn them over to police,” said Dr Hussein Issa, president of Ain Shams University, a Cairo-based public university.

“The new mandate given to the university guards will only be invoked against students involved in such offences as taking drugs, behaving immorally or attacking colleagues or lecturers on the campus.”

Issa dismissed as baseless fears that the move is designed to detain opposition-supporting students and restrict political activities on campus.

“A committee of the university professors will be set up to examine any security report against any offending student before forwarding it to prosecutors. Strict instructions will also be made to security employees against arresting any student participating in a peaceful protest on the campus.”

Other university administrators have said the authority to arrest ‘misbehaving’ students would be restricted to senior security guards.

“The arrest authority will be given only to the university's security directors and their key aides,” said Gaber Nassar, a law professor and president of Cairo University.

This rationale has left students and some lecturers unimpressed, however. Students have already held a series of rallies to condemn the measure. Some lecturers have expressed opposition too.

“Empowering security guards to arrest students is a questionable matter,” said Laila Soueif, a Cairo University professor and member of the pro-university independence group, March 9.

“If universities suffer from a lack of security, there are many options to improve the situation such as hiring well-qualified guards from security firms,” she told the independent newspaper Al Shorouk.

“How can arrest authority be given to administrators, who have not been properly trained to serve as security guards?”