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What do the Egyptian Student Elections Mean?: The Competing Parties and the Results
June 27, 2011 - 10:15am

 

In "What do the Egyptian student elections mean," part 1, we established the revolutionary break that the student elections of March and April 2011 represented for Egypt. The elections, taking place in every faculty of every public university, were open and fiercely contested.

We now identify the main actors in the elections. On the status quo side were deans and university presidents who had been selected by the Mubarak government and were wary about results that could probably threaten their own positions – especially if elections were won by constituencies that advocated the selection of deans and presidents through elections in which students would vote. They did not want to see the university flip from a fully controlled institution to one with power in the hands of student activists pushing for major changes not yet clearly specified.

Mostly on the other side were the students. “Mostly” because one student faction basically took the government line. The majority of students wanted change through elections in which all groups could be represented. But naturally they were divided on what the change should be. Some seemed to demonstrate for almost any kind of reform, simply to speed the change process. Take the example of how to choose the next university presidents and deans. The interim government had made it clear that change of public university presidents could not occur immediately as that would cause undesirable disorder; it did not issue a clear decision on how the new selection method would be implemented though it did pledge changes for the coming academic year. In contrast, some students called for immediate elections to replace all top administrators, regardless of individual records or qualifications, because they belong to the old regime. In a few instances university presidents or deans were indeed forced to step down in the face of fierce demonstrations by students and faculty. They were replaced by individuals with no affiliation to the old regime, though again based on government appointment. Students pushing for selection through elections that would include student voting were opposed by many intellectuals and professors who leaned toward a U.S. model with competitive procedures aimed at attracting largely external candidates, and with authority to select among them delegated to a university board. Recently, the Minister of Higher Education announced that new key executives will be selected by the end of July. The minister has formed a committee of 20 university professors to decide on the selection method that should be adopted at public universities throughout Egypt.

The student elections produced diverse results. In certain faculties, the representatives of the old regime won a majority of seats. In others the Muslim Brotherhood won. And in still others, different groups representing diverse factions won. Overall, neither the old regime nor the Muslim Brotherhood won the majority of seats nationwide. Such divided votes may or may not be reassuring to those who fear the results of national elections in Egypt. In four out of the 19 public universities, the Muslim Brotherhood and/or Islamic Salafist won a majority of seats whereas in the other universities they won between 8% and 20% of the seats. The most prominent victory of the four came, predictably, at the religious Al-Azhar University, though in fact the institution was government-run under Mubarak. The government-appointed head and top leaders issued fatwas holding that Islam does not allow demonstrations or deviation from presidential policy yet the grand mufti at Al-Azhar called for Muslims to forgo Friday prayers on the so-called "Friday of Departure" (February 4th), when mass demonstrations were planned after the prayers to end Mubarak's regime.

But independent candidates won in the other 15 public universities. Importantly, they won 80% of the seats in Cairo University. Not affiliated to any party, the old regime, or Muslim Brotherhood, independents ranged across quite disparate political territory. Nasserists, Liberals, Secularists, Coptic Christians, unaffiliated Islamic groups, and Marxists could all be found. Mostly the independents spoke in favor of nationalism, participation, social justice, and human dignity—strong echoes of Tahir Square themes. But also rather vague things somewhat akin to Motherhood and Apple Pie in the US. Participants and observers could often be left wondering how all this might translate into specific policy positions.

As with national elections, so with student elections. The elections themselves break away from an autocratic past yet also involve manipulation and reflect genuine fears and concerns that they will lead to unrest or radicalism. The Supreme Council of Universities, shaped by the former regime, seeks better PR internationally and avoidance of dangerous confrontation with over 1.6 million students and about 72 thousand faculty members, but these groups are not nearly so status quo oriented. The contours of fundamental change remain uncertain. Among those who see need for true reform, with democratic representation and culture, there is no dominant view about the extent, shape, or authority of democracy and elections within universities. To some extent there are open differences. But often there is neither explicit nor informed debate about specific issues related to the role of student unions or the structure of governance in the universities.

The reality of the present and near future of student elections in Egypt clearly involves a large increase in participation and heightened political stakes. But the substantive outcomes of new electoral realities remain up in the air. So do the ultimate similarities and differences with the broader national electoral process.

 

 

 

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