Heads of Egyptian universities will now be directly appointed by Sisi
Numerous protests at Egypt's universities have led to an increased presence of police forces. (AFP/File)
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Students and some faculty members in public Egyptian universities have expressed their disappointment and frustration with a presidential decree mandating that university heads and deans are to be directly appointed by the president.
The decision by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, issued Tuesday evening, overturns a change ushered in from the popular revolt of 2011, that university heads are to be elected, and brings back the system from 2010, in theory and practice.
Under the terms of the new decree, the higher education minister will now present three candidates for each position for the president to choose. The university head stays in the post for a renewable four-year term, which can be terminated earlier by the president upon the request of the Supreme Council of Universities.
Tuesday's decision comes at the end of a turbulent academic year for Egypt's universities, where students loyal to ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi protested nearly every day. Their demonstrations often ended violently, prompting authorities to allow police back on campuses.
At least 14 students were killed in universities nationwide during the turmoil, according to academic freedom watchdog Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE). The tally was counted in April, towards the end of the academic year.
Ahmed Khallaf, student union head of the faculty of economics and political science at Cairo University, says the decision is a clear reversal of the gains of the 25 January 2011 revolution.
"It’s like having a representative of the state's president on campus," Khallaf said.
Marc Hany, another member of the same faculty’s student union, says the decision is reinforcing a backwards attitude, beginning with bringing police back on campus.
In November, the cabinet allowed police to enter campuses without prior authorisation of university administrators or Egypt's prosecution.
This was backed-up by a court ruling in February which allowed police forces on campus as part of a number of "anti-terrorism" measures, ending a three-year period in which university grounds were off-limits to security forces, notorious for their heavy-handedness.
However, the court ruling is contested, as an initial ruling banning police from entering campus grounds was issued in 2010 by a higher court.
The year of violence made some people question the leadership of the universities and caused some to view a police comeback as the "only option".
But, Khallaf argues, "there are other alternatives that we have regularly presented to [university] heads," like electronic gates and independent security companies.
He blames the government for the year's violence: "The state is responsible for transferring the political polarisation from public politics to campuses and thus responsible for a year of violence," he said.
And he wonders what will really be different under the new decree.
"Of course there was action by some students that we all objected to, but what would the appointed head do different than the elected one?" he asked.
Students also considered the decision "a blatant interference in the universities’ affairs," described in the country's constitution as independent.
The constitution – amended and then passed in January after a nationwide referendum – states in article 21 that "the state shall guarantee the independence of universities and scientific and linguistic academies," an article that student activists say will be breached with the recent decision.
The change to the law, which previously allowed the election of heads, came after a long struggle and months-long sit-ins that both students and faculty members participated in, said Mohamed El-Shafei, a student working with AFTE.
"From experience, we know it will be a state-security controlled campus, which will also affect academic levels," El-Shafei said.
Mohamed Walid, student union head of the engineering faculty at Ain Shams University, told Ahram Online that "political affiliation might be the standard, not the qualifications of university heads."
The decision was also seen by some people as an attack on democracy, which by definition brings not necessarily the best but the people's choice.
One professor of political science at Cairo University, Amal Hamada, said it clearly shows there is no trust in the faculty's choices.
"If you cannot trust the choice of the intellectual elite of the country, how can you trust any other Egyptian citizen? And why would you then have any elections?" she said.
To Hamada, it seems obvious that professors will choose someone who can handle the crisis in a better way, because they've all "suffered a lot [from] the unrest."
"The university is not a field for political battles anyways," she said.
Of all the country's campuses, Al-Azhar University – the highest seat of Sunni learning in the world – topped them all in terms of violent clashes: at least six students were killed in clashes, with dozens more injured and hundreds arrested.
Amna Nossair, Islamic philosophy professor at Al-Azhar, is happy with the decision, namely because of the unrest the university has seen lately.
"Those who love high-level posts and seats, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, got to their posts this way, and we all witnessed the consequences in the past period," Nossair said.
Nossair, herself an appointed dean for Al-Azhar University's branch in Alexandria from 1989-1999, believes the decision will stop Brotherhood members and supporters from taking top positions, after a period of what she describes as marked by an abuse of power.
"Some students felt safe and secure from the university leaders, which gave them power to fight the university and to defy everything," she said. "Elections do not always bring the best or the most qualified and [the post-2011 system] has proved its failure in Egypt."
With the Brotherhood designated a terrorist organisation and its members and supporters subjected to a prolonged crackdown by the government, students who are neither loyal to Morsi nor approving of the current changes find themselves with little options to express their opposition.
"If we find a way to present our objections, without being abused by other groups for their own political benefit, we will surely do it," said Walid, from Ain Shams University.
But an effective reaction seems far off for both objecting students and faculty members, especially since the decree came during summer break, when communication between faculty and students is mostly limited.
As a result, some students don't seem very optimistic about the coming academic year.
"This decision, to be among the first that the president takes, indicates the coming year will not be easy or smooth, and all political activity, clubs and seminars might have the same fate," said Khallaf.
"Any kind of expression of thought or ideas different than those in the executive authority will be restricted," Hany added.
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