The Crisis of the Autonomy of Universities in Egypt: The New Students’ Charter Strengthens the Nationalization of the Students’ Unions(A position paper)

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The statements of the executive authority representatives regarding the new Students’ Charter, which ought to be issued during the current academic year, renewed fears that the framers of the new Students’ Charter will follow the same arbitrary pattern that was witnessed with the passing of the constitutional amendments early on in 2007. In the new Charter, the National Democratic Party (NDP) secured an exclusive right for itself to express an opinion and discuss its provisions prior to its submission to the cabinet for approval. The NDP totally and willingly ignored the rights of those who are equally concerned with expressing an opinion, such as students, faculty members, and civil society organizations.

The secret way in which the new proposed Charter was formulated triggered utter resentment and an ongoing debate on the futility of discussing a Charter that was approved by the circles of the regime and decision-making officials without the involvement of people whom it concerns.
The published information, reported on the behalf of official sources, and the text of the new Students’ Charter, which was published in one of the public newspapers, raises concerns about the destiny and future of students’ rights. The primary reading of the text of the new Charter and the statements of Dr. Hani Hilal, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, which were published in many newspapers, expose that the official statement, which claims that the new Charter will achieve 99% of the students needs and desires, is just pure maneuvering and detouring around the real and repeated desires of the students.

The new Charter looks like a distorted version of the badly reputed 1979 Charter, due to the obvious negligence of its writers to the objective motive behind preparing it. This means it is not responding to the demands of the students and the faculty members who oppose the suppression of freedoms inside universities, nor their supporters from civil society organizations who are concerned with defending the freedom of organizing students in a democratic atmosphere that supports freedom of expression, in political, intellectual and religions contexts; as well as emphasizing the right of citizenship, and asserting the concepts of justice and tolerance, through which the university becomes a producer of generations that are well trained to go through various aspects of life, as well as participating in political life in a peaceful, sober, and organized manner, so that we can restore our legacy of free national student movement which was restricted several decades ago.

The statements contained some positive provisions, such as:
1. Encouraging the election and nomination of irregular students;
2. Granting open-education and post-graduate students certain benefits through students-union activities;
3. Leaving the management of activities and financial issues totally to the students without interference from faculty members;
4. Abolishing the position of “students-union leader;”
5. Increasing the number of committees from five to seven committees in order to activate the role of the students in leadership.

However, the reasons for rejecting the 1979 Charter were renewed once again with the new Charter, which involves the prohibition of all sorts of political, partisan or categorical activity inside universities. The writers of the Charter refuse the suggestions made regarding allowing civil society organizations to observe students’ elections, asserting the prohibition and banning of demonstrations inside universities under any circumstances.

Integration of youth in political life is not necessarily done through political parties and organizations; creating a good atmosphere for formulating a mature political awareness encourages students to express themselves. There is an intellectual and political void, which the regime maintains inside the university through spreading an arbitrary vision of the world free of political activism. This void does not result in the creation of social and political cadres who contribute to the achievement of genuine democratization, or any positive development of any sort; what it creates is merely the desired community of passive spectators.

The new Charter makes it obvious that the writers stick to the old legacy of repression that is filled with taboos. The regime still insists on banning political, partisan and categorical activities of all sorts; a trend that has always been strongly criticized due to its contradiction with students’ rights granted by the Constitution.

University students, according to the law and the Constitution, possess the right to vote, the right to choosing legitimate representatives, to elect their president, not to mention their right to belong to political parties. However, students are even prohibited from talking about issues of political nature inside the university; this prohibition contradicts the law of organizing in universities which calls for the importance of the integration of the university with the society at large in all its problems, interests, and trends, by expanding the students’ patriotic and national perceptions and preparing them for active participation in the social, economical and political affairs of their country.

Also, this law contradicts the claims of the Charter itself that students&#146 unions aim at consolidating a patriotic and national consciousness; upholding the values of belonging and loyalty; deepening the foundations of democracy, human rights, and citizenship inside the students; encouraging the team work spirit; and ensuring the expression of the views of students within the framework of academic norms and traditions.

This is beyond anyone’s comprehension: how can all of these goals be achieved without allowing the students to engage in political activities, or even running a discussion about the policies of parties, and the problems that the country faces, let alone the persistence of the writers of this Charter to hush the political committee?

Despite the legitimacy of the previously-mentioned goals and objectives according to the so-called “norms and traditions of the university,” there is a consensuses on the non-violation of the law, regardless of whether the law itself restricts freedom. However, the university’s old traditions are to a great extent mysterious and vague, which renders them open to misinterpretation by some arbitrary universities&#146 directors, due to the absence of specific and clear standards to define the concepts of academic traditions.

The mentality of prevention and interdiction reached a point where it continues banning categorical activities inside the university, which means that students unions do not have the right to practice their activities as representatives of a certain group of students.
In an attempt to expand the 1979 Charter towards furthering the restriction of the freedom of students to organize, some statements focused on establishing independent students unions, while other statements warned those who violate ancient academic traditions of the consequences. Furthermore, some officials in Egyptian universities encourage the students to exclude students who have tendencies and trends that differ from the prevalent values of the Egyptian society.

Also, a united student union for all universities should be formulated as was the case before (as it is within the jurisdiction of the faculty students union Council –as per the new Charter- to work on strengthening the relationships with students unions of other faculties or institutes of the university). There is an increasing need for such strong networking and bonding to occur.

Students&#146 activities are facing what could be called “political nationalization,” as the activities in the new Charter are still subjected either to the decisions of the deputy of the faculty/institute, or to those of the deputy of the education and students affairs. When someone is airing a grievance, the final decision can only be made by either the Dean of the faculty/institute, or by the University Director. This is an obvious attempt to dispossess students of their will and their political trends.

To accomplish the mission of restricting the freedoms of students, an announcement was made for the allocation of specific hours during the school day for exercising student activities. This is what some people consider a new governmental conspiracy against the student movement.

This allocation of hours was accompanied by the continuation of a full administrative control of student&#146s activities in the Charter that required the approval of the deputy of the faculty/ institute, or the specialized president of the University for holding seminars, lectures, conferences, exhibitions or any other activities, which even include the displaying of wall-magazines.

For decades, the rights of Egyptian university students have been manipulated with, especially in light of a political climate where reform and democratic change have failed as part of a worsening state of hostility by the state towards activists demanding political reform, human rights defenders, as well as independent and partisan press. Also, the NDP amendments of the new Charter on its own, without the active participation of various political forces, the most important of which are students themselves, is a very clear indicator of how the expected legislation will be of issue during the upcoming parliamentary round (especially concerning issues such as Anti-Terrorism Act and amendments to the Law of Associations).

Finally, and because of all the foregoing; we believe that the following recommendations could lead to the accomplishment of a new students’ Charter at least to mitigate the expected damage on academic life. These recommendations are the fruit of the demands of the generations of student movements throughout the past few decades:

1. Universities must enjoy genuine independence, administratively, financially and academically. This independence should be reflected through student unions, which must be formed purely by students, in consultation with faculty members. Managing financial resources must be done under the supervision of students themselves, with the overseeing of the Central Auditing Agency.
2. Ensuring the rights of students and faculty members to express their political and intellectual views through liberating student activities from the hegemony of the university administration.
3. Restricting the university administration from penalizing students and restructuring the terms of candidacy for the membership of the Unions Councils Committees by amending the clause “His/her freedom was not restricted before” to include the exception of exposure to the same penalty for political reasons.
4. Changing the role of university guards from subordinates to the Ministry of Interior, to civil guards that follow the university administration to protect university facilities only, so they would not interfere in student elections, whether by recommending the cancellation of a student’s name, by preventing voters from voting, or by arresting students.
5. It is imperative that political groups and actors, including parliament deputies (whether they belong to parties or are independent), give more attention to university students and their new Charter, and to exert all possible efforts to protect the rights of students, and stop the suppression of freedoms within the university by law, and to guarantee that a future Charter is an actual interpretation to the needs and desires of students.
6. The Charter-writers must benefit from the draft student charters that were compiled by students and civil society organizations hand-in-hand, as they provide models for a new student Charter that interprets the aspirations of students, professors and civil society organizations towards a free and democratic university life.

This Paper prepared by: Ragab Saad Taha – a Researcher in Cairo institute for human rights studies

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