Islamist seminary in turmoil as students protest

Thousands of students at Al-Azhar University, Egypt's huge Islamic seminary, have held rallies in support of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi for the second consecutive week amid accusations from the institution’s administrators that the students have been engaged in acts of violence and vandalism. Dozens of students have been arrested.

The students are pushing for the reinstatement of Morsi, who was deposed by the army last July following massive street protests against his one-year rule.

“Violence is practised by the military and its supporters,” a protesting student told a local TV station.

“We won't stop until the legitimate president is restored and this sheikh of Al-Azhar is removed because he is a disgraceful supporter of the military coup,” added the student, a member of the Students against the Coup movement.

Al-Azhar University, which is attended by around 400,000 students in Cairo and other areas of Egypt, is supervised by the country's top Muslim cleric, officially known as the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar.

The incumbent sheikh is Ahmed el-Tayeb, who gave a public blessing to the army's overthrow of Morsi, Egypt's first freely democratically elected president.

“I call on students to observe calmness and adhere to Islam's teachings while pursuing studies,” el-Tayeb said last week.

The state-run university, which comprises 77 colleges across Egypt, has been rocked by pro-Morsi protests since the beginning of the new academic year on 19 October – almost a month later than other public universities in the country opened.

Pro-Morsi students at Al-Azhar have staged their protests at least twice in recent days outside the premises of the university in Cairo. They blocked a major road nearby, prompting clashes with security forces, who used tear gas to disperse them.

At least 40 students were arrested and charged with blocking the traffic, destroying cars and attacking policemen, according to local media.

On Wednesday 30 October police entered Al-Azhar campus for the first time in three years, in response to a request for help by the university authorities, who accused pro-Morsi students of storming and ransacking the administrative building.

Police have been deployed inside the university in anticipation of further violence.

In 2010, an Egyptian court ordered that police be removed from campuses in Egypt and replaced with civilian security personnel. However, administrators at several universities have recently complained that civilian guards are unable to maintain order amid violent protests over Morsi's overthrow.

Al-Azhar University is headquartered in the vicinity of the eastern Cairo district of Rabaa Al Adawiya, where in mid-August police mounted a deadly crackdown on a massive protest vigil held by Morsi backers.

The clampdown triggered bloody violence across Egypt and sparked an international outcry.

Egyptian Minister of Higher Education Dr Hossam Issa has accused Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, a well-organised Islamist group, of seeking to disrupt classes at universities, and urged presidents of academic institutions to use their authority to "foil this plot".

Al-Azhar University President Professor Osama al-Abd has ruled out the possibility of suspending classes, vowing disciplinary action against "offending" students.

"Studies at Al-Azhar will continue, to avoid fulfilling the aim for which these incidents [protests] have been fomented, which is to halt classes," al-Abd told a press conference on Wednesday.

At least 36 Al-Azhar students are under disciplinary investigation by the university for allegedly inciting violent protest on campus, disrupting classes, destroying facilities and attacking employees, according to officials at the institution.

The students face penalties ranging from temporary suspension to dismissal.