Student union elections present litmus test for campus politics

Student elections around Egypt are underway for the first time in a free and unhindered way. 

Hopes that these elections would usher in a new era of active university politics were dashed by low voter turnout and the reinstatement of many of the representatives from previous, defunct student unions, especially at Ain Shams University and Cairo University, two of the capital's largest.

Despite the disappointing turnout, an increase in activism across university campuses signals students becoming involved more in forming their education and that election participation will likely increase over time.

At Cairo University, the student union elected through dubious polling in previous years was dissolved post-revolution, but the recent vote saw many of the old guard reelected.

During elections, students and faculty alike said past student union members had often been hand-picked.

“Over the past few years, State Security would choose whoever they want to include in the student union and literally block out any name they suspected or didn’t know,” said Leila Soueif, math professor and activist in the 9 March Group, a coalition of university professors calling for campuses’ autonomy.

This year, an opposition coalition of independents, Muslim Brotherhood members, and leftist groups ran under the Free Listing platform and garnered about 30 percent of the votes.  

While the voting process itself was reportedly more transparent and efficient than in past years, voter turnout was lower than expected.  With the exception of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, all of the other races at Cairo’s two largest universities required a run-off because the first round failed to garner 50 percent participation.

“It wasn’t the ideal voting situation due to the fact that it was sudden. There was not enough time to campaign, and most students already don’t understand the significance of the student union to vote,” said Salman Imam, a third-year commerce student at Cairo University. 

Imam, a member of the Free Listing, monitored the elections and thinks that while it was a valuable experience, the elections cannot be used as a template for years to come.

Many candidates and campaigners found it difficult to convince students of the union's significance. Observers noted a general apathy that contributed to the low turnout. 

“Most students don’t know the role of the student union, or their role as voters in the elections,” said Fatima Sirag, a member of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, an NGO that often works on student issues. Sirag said more time is needed to spread awareness of the potential role of student unions.

The unions were once a hotbed for political movements, especially in the early 1970s.  “There was a lot more freedom for the student unions then. They played a pivotal role in political dialogue and mobilization in the country,” said Soueif.

In 1976, laws governing student unions allowed for a broad range of activities and gave them freedom to play such a role. The law was altered many times between1979 and 2009, effectively limiting the ability of student unions to organize social, political and athletic events. 

The rule changes coincided with a much more restrictive university life, which included the introduction of a widespread security presence on campuses.

“Activities that might have contradicted the politics of the dean of the campus — who was almost always of the old regime–were never approved,” said Moustafa Fouad, a third-year law student at Ain Shams University.

Fouad is a member of the 6 April Movement and is one of many students working with the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression to draft new, less restrictive rules.

“The current rules inhibit anyone with any negative disciplinary records from running.  We all have disciplinary citations in my group given the fact that we were all activists against the system,” he said.

Many also attribute student apathy towards this year’s elections to the fact that the end of the school year is near, and a new student union will not have enough time to enact change.

Student activism has increased in both universities, but in other forms.  Almost every faculty in both universities has experienced widespread protests calling for the removal of deans.  Military police dispersed a sit-in at Cairo University’s Faculty of Mass Communications where protesters demanded the dismissal of the university president and the faculty's dean, largely because they were deemed to be part of the old regime.

“I think that is the best gauge of how student activism and involvement did in fact go up after the 25 January revolution. Many of those engaging in protests, sit-ins, and demonstrations against their college and university leadership were never politically active before,” said Islam Abdel Salam, a third-year Free Listing member at Cairo University’s Faculty of Arts. 

Both Abdel Salam and Fouad are engaged in groups spreading awareness at their universities about student rights, the role of student unions, and the current activist campaigns against administrators.

Islam believes that the political climate at the university is analogous to Egyptian society.  “Like the rest of Egypt, a group of us want change and freedom and are willing to fight for it, and others want what they call ‘stability,’” he said. 

Activists generally agree that a profound change in university leadership and rules is needed before a truly democratic system of campus politics can begin. 

“The biggest obstacle now is the law organizing campus life put forth by the Ministry of Higher Education.  It marginalizes the roles of student unions in campus life,” said Sirag.  The elections dry-run will raise significant electoral issues and help rectify the electoral process while serving to gear student minds in preparation for next year’s elections.

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