The strangling of a democratic student movement

Aged 19, Ahmed Al-Khatib was among hundreds of students arrested and jailed by Egyptian authorities for their alleged links to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood following the army’s 2013 overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected but divisive head of state. Still in prison serving a 10-year sentence, Al-Khatib now faces a life threatening illness.

After being sentenced in March last year, the 22-year-old former biotechnology student has recently been diagnosed with visceral leishmaniasis, a potentially fatal disease that medical professionals say is caused by insects in places where hygiene is ignored.

The young man’s illness has prompted calls from his family and several Egyptian rights groups including the state-appointed National Council for Human Rights for his release on health grounds.

Details about Al-Khatib’s deteriorating health coincided with the release of a report on 21 March by SAIH, a solidarity organisation of students and academics in Norway, about violations of students’ rights in Egypt dating from the academic year 2013-14 to 2015-16.

Strangled democratic movement

The report, written and released in cooperation with the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, an independent Egyptian human rights organisation, concludes that Egyptian authorities have strangled a burgeoning democratic movement at Egyptian universities.

Entitled Besieged Universities, the report documents purported grave abuses against students in Middle Eastern countries and reveals more than 2,000 violations of student rights and academic freedoms in Egypt.

In total, 2,318 violations of student rights at Egyptian public universities and Al-Azhar University, the latter regarded as a stronghold of Islamists in the mostly Muslim country, are documented over the cited period.

Of these, the report notes, 1,181 were arrests. A total of 65 students have been sent to military court. In addition, 626 students have been permanently expelled and 21 students have been killed by security forces in clashes with protesters, according to the report. No offenders have been convicted for the killings, it notes.

The 36-page study is based on legal documents, documentation by local human rights organisations and student initiatives, and statements issued by the Egyptian government, university administrations, and student movements.


The research is also based on a “qualitative analysis” extracted from semi-structured interviews conducted with 15 informants selected and recruited from various political movements and student unions in Egyptian public universities and Al-Azhar University.

The assaults of students should be seen in conjunction with other attacks on civil society and human rights activists in Egypt, authors of the report argue.

Hopes for democracy soared in Egypt following a 2011 uprising that forced long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak out of power. The Muslim Brotherhood took power after winning a 2012 election, but was deposed by the military following mass protests against its one-year rule.

Thousands of Islamists and secular activists have since been detained in Egypt in a tough security crackdown.

“Anyone who has been following the political situation in Egypt during the last years understands that the extreme lack of democratic openness and corrupt juridical system makes it hard – and sometimes dangerous – to collect data,” SAIH President Inga Marie Nymo Riseth said in a statement accompanying the report’s release.

“While the world has looked another way, the Mubarak regime has been reinstated,” she said.

University crackdown

Authors of the report warn that the state-led crackdown on universities, including various measures enforced to silence students and other critical actors in society, signals an imminent crisis for higher education.

“During the past three years, we have witnessed the rise and fall of the Egyptian student movement. Within this reporting period, the state has participated in acts and threats of violence or coercion, such as arresting hundreds of students, and killed dozens of others,” the report states.

It goes on to say that the Muslim Brotherhood desired to control all branches of government and institutions, as well as the universities after it took the helm in 2012, marking its first taste of power since the group was created in 1928.

In the wake of Morsi’s toppling, student groups backed by or associated with political parties were banned, restrictive laws were passed, and student arrests increased rapidly.

Many students found themselves involved in a struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters on one side, and the new military regime that was using its full force to legitimate and institutionalise its existence on the other, the report states.

The new regime, unlike Morsi’s, has the full support of state institutions, and most importantly, the support of the security apparatus.

Decline in violations

While citing a decline in the 2015-16 number of violations, the report says this does not necessarily reflect a change in state policies towards student activism.

“On the contrary, it might reflect the unfortunate success of the many security, legislative, and administrative violations, which has threatened and curbed the movement.”

The Egyptian universities’ student union elections, originally scheduled for November last year, have been thrown into uncertainty after the country’s higher education authorities announced delaying the polls until relevant rules are worked out.

The Supreme Council of Universities, in charge of academic policies in Egypt, has said that outgoing student unions in different academic institutions will remain in place until the elections are held. No new date has been set for the polls.

The election delay came after a dispute between students and the Ministry of Higher Education over vote regulations.

The last elections, held in 2015, resulted in wins for mostly anti-government student unions.

Calls for international support

Authors of the report have called on the international community “to respond and hold Egypt accountable to its human rights obligations and other international norms and standards. Being a student is not a crime.”

They conclude that Egyptian authorities have strangled a burgeoning democracy movement at Egyptian universities.

In a separate Arabic report issued in December, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, or AFTE, notes a “significant change” in the overall picture of abuses at Egyptian universities. Political activism, including protests, had almost disappeared from Egyptian universities in the second half of 2016, it says.

The report accuses universities’ administrations, backed by security agencies, of having shifted their attention from curbing on-campus protests to “glaring interventions” in academic affairs.

“The assault has extended to the point of holding academics accountable for their ideas,” the report says.

The report highlights the cases of two unnamed university lecturers at the provincial public Beni Suef University, who were questioned for “insulting” President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the army chief who led Morsi’s overthrow.

The report also names Yousri Gaafar, a professor at Al-Azhar University, who was suspended from duty for three months by the institution for alleged atheism.

In July, 2016, Ain Shams University refused to permit Mohamed Hassan, an engineering lecturer at the state-run institution, to travel to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship after he had allegedly failed to get approval from security agencies, according to the AFTE report.

There has been no official comment on the issue in Egypt.

The government has repeatedly denied claims of rights abuses, saying that its security agencies adhere to the law and that courts in the country operate independently.

In recent months, El-Sisi has pardoned more than 300 inmates, mostly students, detained for participating in unauthorised anti-government protests.