The situation of Egyptian universities reflects the immense challenges and conflicts the country faces in the transformation since Mubarak was forced to step down on February 11th. The Minister of Higher Education of the caretaker cabinet announced that there would be no new policy initiatives until a new full government takes over. However, key debates are occurring that could have serious consequences. Moreover, in reality the Ministry and the Supreme Council of Universities (SCU) have made several decisions. These are designed to gain trust and “stability” at Egyptian universities, avoid further demonstrations by students and faculty, and thus preserve the status quo. But this official approach does not adequately address current reality. It does not sit well with the many who want fundamental change, though there is great disagreement over the parameters of that change. Student elections offer one glimpse into the struggles within the university and even into the struggles within Egypt more broadly, in the run up to national elections. Perhaps it also gives some insight into the youth uprisings in so much of the Arab world.
Student elections were held in all nineteen public universities during March and April; they took place in all faculties with no exceptions. Private universities, not controlled by the Ministry, made their own decisions about holding elections, sometimes pushed by student demonstrations. This essay deals with only the public sector (where the great majority of enrollment is concentrated).
Typically, Egyptian student unions have had roles limited to social activities, sports competitions, moot courts, and the like. But even for such low or symbolic political stakes, elections determining the composition of student unions (historically) took place early in the academic year, not allowing the candidates sufficient time to promote themselves or to give students a chance to learn enough about the candidates. More importantly, the university eliminated some candidates based on “security reasons”. Typically, students with a clear political opinion (whether Islamic, Marxist, or other) would be the most common eliminations. In short, elections were manipulated to ensure compliance with the government as was the case with elections in October 2010 during the Mubarak era .
After the national revolution, which took place during the mid-year break, the results of the 2010 elections were no longer viable and students en masse called for fair and free elections. The SCU, a body of university presidents appointed by the old regime, admitted that the elections had lacked transparency and that some students had been prevented from running for illegitimate reasons. It disbanded all student unions in all public universities, ostensibly to pave the way for fair and free elections—but within just 60 days. As with prospective national elections, one could fear that quick elections could unduly favor the most organized groups: pro-government and Muslim Brotherhood. And of course the student elections did come much more quickly than the national elections, though one should not suppose that student elections generally need as long a gestation period. The new government, aiming to distance itself from the old regime, found in student elections a step to show its good intentions as well as a way to buy time for larger reforms. The objective of the SCU evidently was to maintain power and to forestall wholesale change
The elections reflected fierce competition among many groups with widespread participation – quite a contrast to years in which there were often neither enough candidates nor a quorum of voters and when students were appointed to reach the number needed for the unions. The interim government allowed students to run for elections without any security checks. Rather than security forces or university administrators, a committee including a member of the faculty and 7 students representing different groups monitored the electoral procedures in each school or college. Additionally, the Ministry of Higher Education allowed representatives from civil society and human rights organizations to monitor the elections. Glass voting ballot boxes and phosphoric ink were used to ensure transparency. All students were allowed to vote, even those who had not paid their tuition fees.
However, reports of manipulation soon surfaced. Complaints cited university presidents favoring selected students or student groups intimidating voters with some officials refusing to stop inappropriate behavior. One dean replied to such complaints saying, “You [students] are the ones who asked for free elections.” Elections in Cairo University, the nation’s leading higher education institution, saw low voter turnout in its first round due to an incident one day prior to elections at the School of Communication. A demonstration calling for the dean to resign resulted in a university official calling in the army that arrived and used laser guns to break up the protest.
Whatever the shortcomings of the process, and whatever dangers they might portend, the 2011 Egyptian university student elections are a landmark in institutionalized popular participation in a nation accustomed to autocratic control. The second part of this blog, next week, will examine the main competitors in the elections, the stakes, and the results.