No ‘New University’ in Cairo

Emma van der Zalm is taking it all in in Cairo. She's studying Arabic in the Egyptian capitol and wants to share what her life is like through her blog.

We have student associations for everything in Groningen, even ones that you may never have thought would exist (ever heard of the gliding association? See? This is what I mean). In Cairo, there are many students associations as well, focusing on many different topics such as development, social activities, academic activities, religion and politics.

The political student associations in particular have had a striking influence in Egyptian (student) life in the past few years. The number of students who are involved in those associations is not clear as there are no statistics on this, but their influence should not be underestimated.

Lately, we have seen a new movement pop up in Holland, particularly in Amsterdam. ‘The New University’ is trying to democratize the university by going to the streets, protesting and organizing sit-ins. A comparable phenomenon can be found in Egypt – however, unlike in Holland, its history is long and rough and has had many faces.

Democracy ‘hard to find’

In the years before the revolution, Mubarak was trying to prevent anyone from playing a political role outside of his ruling party. This led to many restrictions which made it very hard for any student association with a political orientation to conduct activities. One of these restrictions was the installment of university guards who had to keep an eye on all political associations and activities on campus and to combat any unwanted activity.

Besides the guards, another restriction was that the people on the boards and leading positions in the universities were friends of the police (and supporters of Mubarak) and were often financially corrupt. Democracy in the universities was thus hard to find.

During the revolution, people from all layers of Egyptian society were involved in the demonstrations, and so were the students. A common trend that followed was the development of ideologies, political ideas and opinions among students. Many of them were pro-revolution, but one should keep in mind that this was not the case for all of them: people who were pro-Mubarak also became more politically involved.

Those years have passed

After the revolution, there were two years of relative political freedom at the universities. During those years, many new political movements emerged. Students were not only interested in the democratization of the university anymore; many strived for the democratization of the country as well.

It was also during this time that there were major demonstrations against the deans and board members of the university, as they still belonged to the old regime; some of them left, but others did not. It was comparable to, but bigger than, what is happening in Amsterdam at the moment.

But those years have passed, and Abdul Fatah al-Sisi has come to power. The freedom that the students gradually built up is almost completely gone. Al-Sisi, just like Mubarak, is not allowing political activities in universities. While The New University is making small progress in Holland, in Cairo, the students with comparable ideologies are back at the very start.

Al-Sisi might be able to decrease the influence and the appearance of political associations in universities through a fierce crackdown. However, he will not be able to make them disappear entirely; there are still people trying to break his rules, and there are still demonstrations (although less than before).


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