Government urged to allow university student elections

Students in Egypt are pushing the government to hold university student elections more than a year after their original due date, amid increasing on-campus restrictions.

Student union representatives from several universities held a crisis meeting in Cairo last week and threatened “escalation” if the polls were not held before the end of the current academic year.

“The elections should be held without any further delay or procrastination,” the students said in a statement after the meeting. “The Higher Education Ministry should provide guarantees of fair elections.”

The meeting was prompted by recent media remarks attributed to Minister of Higher Education El-Sayed Abdel Khaleq, that the student elections – originally scheduled for last year – could be postponed due to time constraints as the academic year usually ends in May.

“As representatives of students, we want the elections to be held as soon as possible,” said Marwa Nowfal, head of the student union at Cairo-based Ain Shams University.

Nowfal requested the authorities to scrap a recently re-introduced stipulation that students wishing to run in the election should prove that they are engaged in student activities.

“This article should be dropped because it was manipulated by authorities before the revolution against Mubarak, to disqualify dissident students from competing in the elections,” she said, referring to the 2011 uprising that forced long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak out of power.

“The Higher Education Ministry’s foot-dragging on holding the elections is aimed at killing off student activism. But we will not allow this to happen,” Nowfal said.

Crack-down on activist academics

The Egyptian authorities have recently tightened curbs on political activism in universities as part of a crackdown on anti-government academics, mainly among Islamists.

Dozens of students and lecturers have been detained in recent months following violent protests blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, which is led by ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

In January, incumbent President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – who led Morsi’s removal – issued a law allowing the dismissal of lecturers engaged in on-campus political activism, a move condemned by rights advocates as allegedly aimed at stifling dissidence in universities.

Students accuse the government of taking advantage of recent attacks by militants in several parts of Egypt to restrict their activism, including holding elections.

“Failure to hold student union elections means there are no legal representatives for students. This can turn universities into hubs for extremism,” said Hosam Fahmi from the provincial Tanta University.

“The minister of higher education should explain the real reasons for insinuating that the elections will be further postponed.”

The fate of the elections was the focus of another Cairo meeting at the weekend by students from opposition political parties. They said they would stage protests in universities as part of unspecified escalation to press for holding the student vote.

“There is no justification for putting off the election, which is one of the students’ established rights,” said Mahmoud Shalabi, a student from the Islamist party, Strong Egypt.

“There are around three million students in Egyptian universities who have no real representatives at present due to the delay of the elections. State authorities do not have the guts to allow students to hold elections and vote freely.”

Government denies postponement

A government official denied any plan to cancel this year’s student union polls.

“The minister has never announced that the elections will be cancelled,” said Adly Reda, spokesperson for the Higher Education Ministry. “The minister has expressed readiness to hold the elections if the students decide on this,” he said without elaborating.

* Last month the Daily News Egypt reported that a student had received a one-year jail sentence for contempt of religion, for supporting atheism on Facebook. Sherif Gaber (22) was studying at Suez Canal University in 2013 when lecturers and students reported him via a petition to the institution’s president, the newspaper said.