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Egypt's decades-long war on college kids

An Egyptian student holds up a flare during a protest against court verdict acquitting former President Hosni Mubarak, at the Cairo University campus on December 3, 2014, in Cairo, Egypt.
An Egyptian student holds up a flare during a protest against court verdict acquitting former President Hosni Mubarak, at the Cairo University campus on December 3, 2014, in Cairo, Egypt.
Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Egypt's Interior Ministry admitted last week that at least 3,462 university students are currently imprisoned in Egypt. As Middle East history professor Howard Eissenstat noted, that's more than the entire student body of some US colleges, including Vassar, Swarthmore, and Amherst.

So why are an entire college's worth of students locked up in Egyptian prisons?

It's all part of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's expanding crackdown on dissent after the Arab Spring. Human rights activists have given alarming accounts recently that the Sisi regime is "disappearing" hundreds of people — that is, illegally detaining and holding them in secret locations, where they are often tortured.

"The goal seems to be to terrorize society, to show that anyone who dares criticize the government will face a similar fate," Mohamed Elmissiry, a researcher with Amnesty International, told the New York Times.

So why is Sisi so afraid of dissent, especially from college kids? To understand that, you need to understand an important fact about Egypt's recent (and not-so-recent) history: Sisi is just the latest Egyptian leader to use repression, torture, and mass arrests to silence anyone who might pose a threat to his grip on power. And historically, that has included focusing heavily on the perceived threats to the regime coming from Egypt's university campuses.

The 1970s: Sadat and the Islamic student groups

As scholar Gilles Kepel has written, in the 1970s, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat heavily promoted the creation of Islamic student organizations on the campuses of Egypt's universities as a way to bolster his image as the "believer president" and challenge the influence of the Arab secular nationalist ideology that had defined Egypt under Sadat's predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. These Islamic student groups, known as al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, rapidly expanded, becoming influential organizations on college campuses all across Egypt.

Eventually these powerful groups grew angry at a number of Sadat's policies, including his decision to sign a peace agreement with the hated Israelis and his pro-Western stance. They turned against him, accusing Sadat of having sold out both Egypt and his Islamic values and become a puppet of the immoral, decadent West. They declared him an apostate.

Sadat, realizing the threat he had created, outlawed the Islamic student groups and began rounding up hundreds of students and throwing them in prison. This coincided with Sadat's larger crackdown on several sectors of society that he saw as a threat.

"The process reached its apogee in 1981," explains Kepel, "when Sadat imprisoned more than 1,500 people from a cross section of Egyptian society: Islamic activists, lawyers, doctors, journalists, university professors, political opponents, and ex-government ministers."

Many underwent harsh treatment while in prison and came out angrier and even more radicalized. They also came out with more connections across different parts of Egyptian society. They formed clandestine militant cells that included not just students but also members of the military, and began plotting to bring down the president.

On October 3, 1981, one of those militants assassinated President Sadat during a military parade.

The Arab Spring: University-educated youth once again help bring down a dictator

When Sadat was assassinated, his vice president, Hosni Mubarak — who had been sitting next to Sadat when the shots rang out and narrowly missed being killed himself — assumed the presidency. He promptly reinstated an old emergency law that, as Human Rights Watch explains, gave him "extensive powers to suspend basic rights such as prohibiting demonstrations, censoring newspapers, monitoring personal communications, and detaining people indefinitely without charge."

The emergency law would remain in effect continuously for the next 31 years.

Mubarak would not repeat the mistakes of his predecessor. Scholar Ursula Lindsey writes that "under the Mubarak regime, universities were tightly monitored and collective organizing and public debates (let alone overtly political activity) of every kind proscribed."

"Student union elections," she says, "were rigged. Deans and presidents were vetted by the intelligence services and appointed based on their political loyalty to the regime."

Yet university students still frequently staged large demonstrations — at times numbering in the tens of thousands — protesting Mubarak's regime. The regime sometimes allowed these protests to take place without incident, but more often responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and mass arrests, particularly when protests escalated into violent riots. These protests, however, rarely if ever extended beyond the campus.

Around 2008, that began to change when a small group of young, social media-savvy activists — calling themselves the April 6 Youth Movement — created a Facebook page in support of a planned textile workers strike in the city of Mahalla al-Kobra on April 6 to protest low wages and high food prices. The Facebook page caught fire in Egypt, and within a few weeks support for the strike had swelled to 70,000. Young activists across Egypt began to realize the power of social media to spread their message of resistance far beyond the confines of the university campus.

Then in early 2011, a group of young, university-educated activists helped organize some of the first protests that would eventually lead to the Egyptian Revolution. According to Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a leading figure in the revolution, it was the young people — the same ones who had been protesting on university campuses for years — who led the revolution. "Young people are impatient," he said. "Frankly, I didn’t think the people were ready."

As it turned out, he was wrong and the students were right: The people were ready. Tens of thousands of Egyptians from all walks of life took to the streets and joined the youth movement calling for the removal of President Mubarak. After just 18 days of protests, he stepped down.

Egypt today

Egypt today is once again ruled by an authoritarian dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who again is targeting students.

In 2014, the Sisi regime reportedly contracted a private security firm called Falcon to provide security at 15 state universities and on Al-Azhar University’s main campus.

According to the firm's executive director, "The firm will install heavy steel gates in front of electronic gates at campus entrances, a measure to contain violence if riots break out on university grounds." He added, "The security firm’s role is not to intervene into the students’ activities, but rather protect them from the threat of violence or plans to disrupt the educational process."

One suspects that "plans to disrupt the educational process" would very likely include student demonstrations.

Scholars Michele Dunne and Katie Bentivoglio explain that Sisi has clamped down on university activism because that's where he is most vulnerable.

"The focus on stopping student demonstrations," write Dunne and Bentivoglio, "suggests Egyptian authorities are aware of what might be the Achilles’ heel of Sisi’s regime: weak support among the young generation of Egyptians who sparked the uprising against Mubarak in 2011."

Like the other dictators before him, Sisi knows that the tens of thousands of students on university campuses across Egypt represent a potentially significant threat to his power. That's why he's arresting thousands of them: At least in jail, the regime can keep an eye on them.