In late December 2015, students from 24 universities across Egypt launched a widespread protest on social networking sites (SNS) against the involvement of the Egyptian Ministry of Education in the Students’ Union elections in Egypt, and against the violation of freedom of expression. The online protest reflects the deepening crisis of trust of the educated youth of Egypt in their government, and young people’s severe disappointment in the government’s refusal to adopt democratic values.
The Egyptian Students’ Union is an umbrella organization of all government and private universities. It was founded in 2011, after the overthrow of President Mubarak. However, when President Mohamed Morsi was removed from office in July 2013, the union’s elections were frozen. The freeze was initiated by allies of the new president, Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, who sought to “cleanse” the universities of groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been declared a terrorist organization. Two-and-a-half years later, in November 2015, the union’s elections were resumed. However voter turnout was low, with only 30% of the students in Egypt participating. A likely contributing factor, among others, was a campaign waged on SNS by students who support the Muslim Brotherhood; they called for a boycott of the elections under the slogan “Our right” (haqqna), protesting the military coup of al-Sisi and the subsequent suppression of individual freedom in Egypt.
In the current round of elections, two blocs were particularly prominent: the Voice of Egypt’s Students (Sawt Tullab Misr), which benefited from the regime’s indirect support, and an organization of independent students mostly belonging to the January 25 Revolution movement of young, secular activists, who oppose the al-Sisi regime. In the final tally, Abdullah Anwar was elected as the Chairman of the Union and Amar al-Helo as his deputy; both were conspicuous leaders during the January 25 Revolution. These results did not find favor in the eyes of the Egyptian regime. The Minister of Education Ashraf al-Shehy decided to postpone announcing the results, claiming that there were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood among the elected representatives. Al-Shehy even issued an edict dispersing the Egyptian Students’ Union on the grounds of irregularities in the elections at Zagazig University.
The Egyptian government’s intervention in the results of the Students’ Union elections seem to reflect its concern about the consolidation of militant opposition to the regime among educated young people. Ahmed Al-Bakri, Vice Chairman of the Students’ Union of Egypt and Chairman of the Students’ Union at Al-Azhar University, highlighted this when he spoke about the al-Sisi era in October 2015: “All of the universities are covered by surveillance cameras. The Egyptian student has become a danger to national security, and the security [apparatus] has begun to run the universities.”
The decision to disperse the current Students’ Union aroused great anger and sparked protests on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag “I support Egypt’s Students’ Union” (Adam Ittihad al-Tullab Misr). Students across the country expressed their frustration on SNS and called for applying pressure on decision-makers to make them change their mind. According to many students, the regime’s blatant interference in the elections exacerbated the crisis of confidence between the younger generation and the regime, which keeps young people from political life, and is considered a symbolic return to Mubarak’s dictatorial regime. From their perspective, the Egyptian regime nurtures student groups that obey its commands, while simultaneously cutting off those that could threaten its stability. Others noted that the time has come to accept that the military regime prefers to impose its will “and take the people’s will and choices out with the garbage.” Students also claimed that young secular people erred when they did not continue the revolution in January 2011, stressing that, “the people’s memory is short, (and) the military does not know what democracy is.” Some even expressed concern about the outbreak of popular protests on campuses at the beginning of the second semester, if the government does not retract its decision to dismantle the Students’ Union.
The online protest was also supported by former presidential candidates, media personalities, MPs and public figures, who signed a petition calling for the Ministry of Education to retract its decision and demanding that al-Sisi and the Prime Minister intervene in the crisis immediately. Hamdi Sabah, a Member of Parliament and former candidate for the presidency of Egypt, tweeted that this was an “oppressive, crude decision of a regime that suffers from over-exercising its ‘security muscle’ and a narrow understanding of politics.” ‘Ammar al-Din, editor of the daily Al-Shorouk, complained about the decision to dismantle the union because of “the price it would exact from the Ministry [of Education], the government and related apparatus, given the antagonism [they aroused] among university students.”
In conclusion, many students perceive the decision of Egypt’s Ministry of Education to void the results of elections in the Students’ Union as a gross violation of democratic values, and an attempt to impose the regime’s will on its citizens. Moreover, the crisis reflects the lack of mutual trust between the educated youth of Egypt and the regime. In a crisis of this type, SNS are a unique channel that allow young people in Egypt to express their distress over the situation and increase public awareness of their problems, especially when the voice of protest is not adequately heard in the traditional print media. It should be remembered that already during the rule of Mubarak, young people recognized the value of SNS as a tool for organizing anti-government demonstrations and protesting current reality. That eventually led to the fall of the Mubarak regime. The growing frustration of the young people expressed in the wake of the current crisis is evidence of a more strident tone against Egypt’s transformation into a military dictatorship, which may move beyond virtual space and generate live demonstrations for real democratization in Egypt.