Low turnout at ‘restrictive’ student elections

Voter turnout appeared to be low at the student union elections which took place in Egypt last weekend – the country’s first such polls in two years – and many candidates won their seats unopposed, according to local news reports including Al-Masry Al-Youm.

The exact numbers of voters and the political leanings of their favoured candidates are not yet clear.

The elections, which ended on 14 December, were prescribed by regulations many saw as restrictive and aimed at excluding dissenters. For example, they were not open to contestation by students linked to political groups, mainly the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and those who have been subjected to disciplinary or criminal penalties.

Potential contenders, except for new students, had to provide proof of engagement in university activities.

In the past four years, Egyptian authorities have banned political activism on campuses as part of a tough crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that used to wield significant influence in the country’s academic institutions.

Some students have said the curbs were aimed at excluding dissenters from the elections.

“How can students prove they are active in the university while they are prevented from [pursuing] any activities that authorities don't approve?” said a student at state-run Ain Shams University, declining to give his name for fear of victimisation.

“The restrictions in the election regulations have been tailored in a way that ensures only supporters of the government will be members of the student unions."

Dozens of students who applied to run for election in the new polls in several universities were disqualified.

State-run Alexandria University excluded 162 from a total of 1,581 applicants. “The main reason for excluding them is that they have not proven their engagement in student activities,” head of the institution’s youth welfare department Mahmoud Gamal said without elaboration.

Cairo University, Egypt's main public academic centre, said that 77 students had been disqualified from the elections, while 1,215 others are eligible to run for election.

Some local media reported that the administrations of several universities in Egypt were keeping a close eye on opposition secular and Islamist groups on campuses in the run-up to the elections.

University officials defended the election-based rules, saying they have been worked out with approval of student representatives.

“The aim of student unions is to serve students. Therefore, all student activities should be pursued in line with the university system,” said Mohamed el-Deeb, the deputy head of the student affairs department at Ain Shams University.

He warned student contenders against using religious and political slogans in their campaigning. “Any student who violates the university regulations will be brought to account,” el-Deeb said, according to private newspaper Al Watan.

Egypt’s universities were rocked for months by violent protests after the army deposed democratically-elected but divisive Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

Hundreds of students have been expelled and jailed for involvement in violence since the overthrow of Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The student union elections were originally scheduled for November last year, but they were put on hold due to a dispute between students and the Ministry of Higher Education over vote regulations.

The then minister of higher education Ashraf el-Sheehy suggested the elections be held on the basis of rules issued in the era of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in a 2011 popular uprising.

His suggestion angered students, who instead demanded the polls be held on the basis of post-Mubarak rules that in 2015 resulted in wins by mostly anti-government student unions.

In February this year, el-Sheehy was replaced by Khaled Abdel Ghaffar as minister of higher education.

Abdel Ghaffar has promised free and fair elections, and vowed firmness against violations of the regulations.

“We bet on awareness of the students, who realise well, after the past hard time, who is with the state and who is against it,” Abdel Ghaffar said this week when asked about the chances for 'extremist' contestants in the polls. “We will apply the law firmly against anyone violating the university norms.”