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It started with a refusal to pay the car parking fee. But within a few hours thousands of students and staff at the American University in Cairo had joined the demonstration, bringing Egypt‘s most elite educational institution to a standstill.
“The revolution has affected all of us,” said Sarah Abdel-Rahman, a recent graduate from the $17,000-a-year (£10,800) university. “Now if you have demands, you believe that they should and can be met, and you’re not going to give up. It’s not like the past anymore, and I think the university administration are yet to realise that.”
Egypt’s road to reform has hit plenty of obstacles since the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak, but that has not stemmed a tide of grassroots action that continues to wash across the unlikeliest of places.
The American University in Cairo (AUC) has long been considered a breeding-ground for Egypt’s future political and business powerbrokers and its tuition fees – more than eight times the annual income of the average Egyptian – have ensured that its student body is more associated with designer labels than direct action.
On Sunday however, that reputation began to crumble as mounting resentment over the university’s management boiled over into a mass strike and sit-in that is now entering its fifth day.
Students and employees complain of exorbitant fee hikes, the alleged exploitation of local workers and disputed claims over the university’s conduct during this year’s anti-Mubarak uprising. Many have now joined forces with a growing student movement that is rapidly mobilising dissent across the country.
“Mubarak’s state security apparatus used to prevent any kind of meaningful political organisation between students in different colleges, but that’s beginning to change,” said Abdel-Rahman, who was also involved in the 18 days of street protest that helped bring down the former dictator in February.
“By becoming active ourselves we’re shifting the perception of AUC – people can now see that we’re not just a bunch of spoiled kids, but rather a community with legitimate demands whose parents can’t afford to keep paying thousands more pounds every semester.”
The protests, which have continued despite efforts at mediation and an attempted university-wide forum to address popular grievances, saw students defy security cordons on the new multimillion dollar desert campus and surround the office of the university president, Lisa Anderson. “Get out thieves,” they chanted in an echo of the slogans used against Mubarak in Tahrir. “Lisa, where did our money go?” demanded others.
The university administration also stands accused of underpaying staff, some of whom reportedly work without contracts, insurance or benefits for up to 16 hours a day. “They cannot get away with treating Egyptians like dogs,” said Moatz Shawki, an award-winning computer software designer and AUC staff fellow who was fired in July after clashing with Anderson.
Shawki had been demanding answers from his employers over a hotly contested allegation that pro-Mubarak snipers were allowed to use the university’s downtown premises to target anti-government demonstrators in Tahrir Square; a photo of him apparently being manhandled off the AUC campus by private security guards has since circulated on the internet.
AUC said that Shawki’s dismissal had nothing to do with the sniper issue, which is the subject of an ongoing investigation. “The university authorities were first alerted to the existence of snipers on the roof of the Tahrir campus buildings in mid-February, shortly after we resumed operations,” said Anderson, a political science academic who took charge of AUC last year. “We immediately contacted the public prosecutor’s office and have co-operated fully since then.”
That has done little to appease students, who claim that state security officials have long held sway over certain aspects of the university’s operations and that the institution’s image as a bastion of free speech is wide of the mark. On Tuesday, it emerged that striking university cleaners have been threatened with dismissal if they do not return to work within 10 days. “The university is committed to a freedom of expression policy that recognises the right of all members of the AUC community to express their views as they wish, as long as they do not do so in such a way as to disrupt university activities or damage university property,” wrote Anderson in an email to all staff and students earlier this week.
“Most of the participants in today’s protests displayed a high level of commitment to the principles of freedom of expression, integrity and responsibility as members of the community. Unfortunately, small groups of students and staff appear to have violated university policy in using physical force in confrontation with security staff at the gates, vandalising university property, obstructing access to the campus and disrupting classes,” said Anderson, adding that a major budget deficit stands in the way of many of the strike demands being met. “Violence of any type, especially targeted at security staff, will not be tolerated.”
Hundreds of students at Egypt’s biggest state universities occupied campuses this week in protest at the continued presence of deans who are known to be affiliated with Mubarak’s now-disbanded ruling party. In August, the head of Cairo University, Egypt’s biggest academic institution, was forced to stand down as a result of student demonstrations.