Anger after student union election results cancelled

A recent decision by the Egyptian authorities to cancel the results of the nation’s long-delayed university student union election has drawn condemnation from students and academics.

A commission from the Higher Education Ministry said the election, held last month to select senior representatives for the federation Student Union of Egypt, was invalid due to “procedural mistakes” and must be repeated.

Independents make gains

The student election was the first in Egypt for more than two years. The last election, held in March 2013, was suspended by the Supreme Council of Universities.

Egypt’s student union system is complex. Each of 23 public universities has a student union, with a president and vice-president. Each faculty also has a student president and vice-president and numerous committees dealing with different activities, and each has students representing different years of study. All fall under the federal Student Union of Egypt.

Last month, independents achieved major wins over contenders from the Voice of Egypt’s Students, an alliance believed to be backed by government, in polls held at all universities.

It was reported that independent candidates won 12 out of 14 positions for committees of the Student Union of Egypt. “This pattern repeated itself throughout elections on the university and faculty levels, possibly heralding a renewed independence of student unions,” according to the Atlantic Council.

Higher Education Minister Ashraf el-Sheehi defended the decision to annul the vote result, saying the decision had been taken in response to appeals filed by students against the process.

“The election cancellation has no political dimensions. Procedural mistakes occurred. We do not favour certain students over others,” el-Sheehi said. “A date for the new vote will be set soon.”

Scepticism over new vote

Several student groups have rejected the proposed new election, saying it will prolong the process of having all-inclusive student unions in place.

“If there are new elections, they will not be held before the second semester,” said Abdallah Anwar, who was elected national president of the Student Union of Egypt in the disputed poll. “Does it make sense to have the federation only two months before the end of the academic year?” he asked.

Anwar, a student at state-run Cairo University, is also critical of his win being cancelled. “This is a strange decision, which seeks to circumvent the students’ democratic experience.”

He alleged that the authorities were not pleased with the wins notched up by independents at university level. Anwar is also the elected head of Cairo University’s student union. He vowed to work to remove a ban on political activities in universities and seek the release of students detained for violent protests.

Unions of several Egyptian universities, backing Anwar, have called for the sacking of the higher education minister, allegedly for meddling in the student election.

Egyptian universities have been battered by violent anti-government protests following the 2013 army overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

“Dissolving the new federation is a regrettable step,” said Laila Soueif, a Cairo University professor and member of the pro-academic independence group March 9. “It also wastes public money and will generate student animosity. The decision has political implications especially after independent students’ ascendancy.”

Political ripples

The row has spilled beyond universities.

Prominent politician and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi denounced the election cancellation as “foolish and arbitrary”.

The opposition sharply criticised the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who as an army chief led Morsi’s toppling.

“The decision to cancel the election seems politically rather than legally motivated,” said the Social Democratic Party.

“This measure represents a setback for students’ democratic course and repeats interference by security agencies and university administrations in student elections, as was the case before the January 25 [2011] revolution.”

The regime of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who was forced to resign following the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ popular uprising, was long accused of controlling the country’s academic institutions and harassing dissident students.

In an attempt to contain the fallout from the current crisis, the higher education minister this month met student representatives. He disclosed to them that the election dispute had been referred to a judicial agency for a binding decision.

“The Higher Education Ministry will abide by any decision that the State Council will make on this issue,” el-Sheehi said.

The ruling is expected later in January.