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Egypt: On the ground at Cairo’s Al-Azhar protests - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Al-Azhar University student supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi react as teargas is fired by Egyptian security forces during a clash in front of the main gate of the university in Cairo on December 10, 2013. (REUTERS/Stringer)

Al-Azhar University students who support the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi react as teargas is fired by Egyptian security forces during a clash in front of the main gate of the university in Cairo on December 10, 2013. (REUTERS/Stringer)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—“The smell of gas and scenes of smoke are always present; the sound of gunfire is everywhere, it is as if we are in a war movie,” said Al-Azhar student Mohamed Ziad.

Ziad was speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat at Al-Azhar University’s campus in eastern Cairo, which has witnessed scenes of Muslim Brotherhood student protests and a security crackdown over the past few days. Local media reported that security forces had targeted pro-Muslim Brotherhood female Al-Azhar students with tear gas and water cannons on Wednesday. While the situation remained calm on Thursday, authorities feared that the situation could flare up again on Friday.

“We no longer consider ourselves safe on campus or in the lecture halls. Our families are worried and fear that we will return to them in coffins. We have to attend lectures, and we cannot leave the city due to the approaching end of first term exams,” Mohamed Ziad added.

Ziad is not affiliated to any political party or ideology in Egypt and, like thousands of other students at Al-Azhar University, he is shocked and concerned about the recent outbreak of violence. Al-Azhar is Egypt’s oldest university, and has found itself at the heart of protests in post-Mursi Egypt.

He said: “The hit-and-run attacks between the police and Muslim Brotherhood students are indescribable; the situation in Al-Azhar is very dangerous. The security apparatus is dealing with all Al-Azhar students as if they are dealing with a foreign enemy.”

Egypt’s Interior Ministry issued a number of warnings this week following the outbreak of mass protests at Al-Azhar University. Cairo eventually took the decision to deploy security forces at all Al-Azhar campus entrances and exits, in addition to deploying military units to confront the pro- Brotherhood student protesters who are calling for the return of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Mursi and the release of Muslim Brotherhood prisoners.

Asharq Al-Awsat was at the heart of the Al-Azhar protest, and spoke with students and police on both sides of the divide.

There have been calls from across the country to suspend studies at the university following the violence, but the Al-Azhar University administration has confirmed that studies will continue and that exams will go ahead on schedule, on December 28.

Although lectures and seminars continued as normal this week, Asharq Al-Awsat could sense the state of apprehension and fear among the Al-Azhar University student body throughout the day. There was also a huge influx of families visiting student dorms to check on loved ones following the gripping scenes of protest.

A security official affiliated to Egypt’s Interior Ministry guarding the Al-Azhar campus did not appear optimistic about the chances of calm prevailing, particularly with mass protests expected on Friday.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Rabaa sign has become a way for students to communicate and assemble,” referring to the four-fingered salute that has become part of the scenery of Egyptian protests since Mursi’s ouster.

The security officer added that Muslim Brotherhood students were bringing food from home and appeared to be planning to carry out long-term protests. The Al-Azhar student demonstrators have both general and specific complaints, from the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi and the August security crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood protests to calls for the academic year to be suspended and exams postponed.

The recent outbreak of protests has included pro-Muslim Brotherhood female students at Al-Azhar University, who have lately accused the government of specifically targeting them.

One student, who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by the police, claimed that the Egyptian security forces are using female officers in plain clothes to arrest protesters, even inside Al-Azhar University itself.

The student, N. M., who is studying at Al-Azhar’s Faculty of Agriculture, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Many of my friends were arrested within the environs of the campus by policewomen in plain clothes, and they were harassed and severely beaten.”

She criticized Al-Azhar University Chairman Osama Al-Abd for asking security forces to intervene to suppress the student protests.

“The university authorities should not allow police on campus to harass us,” she said.

For his part, Abd remains committed to confronting the student protesters, refusing to back down. Speaking to local media earlier this week, he said: “What is happening will not affect the education process at Al-Azhar. Studies will continue and the exams will take place on time.”

Mohamed Rabie, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood youth organization at Al-Azhar, also complained about police tactics. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The security continues to pursue us . . . First they fire tear gas, and then their officers deal with us harshly, arresting dozens.”

“The security [forces] are beating us as if they are looking for revenge,” he added.

One Al-Azhar security official, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, said: “Security arrested 58 students on Tuesday, and the university will refer them all to disciplinary boards.” He added that other students caught taking part in the protest had been forcibly evicted from the Al-Azhar University campus.

The official claimed that Al-Azhar had video evidence of students attacking security officers and seizing their weapons, smuggling these arms into the heart of the campus.

He added that many international students had withdrawn from the university over security fears.

Asharq Al-Awsat found one student selling Rabaa signs and posters during a protest. Asked about the price of a Rabaa sign, the student answered that each one cost five Egyptian pounds (73 cents).

He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “It’s a way to make money . . . Many students don’t have the Rabaa sign but want to raise it during a protest, and so I am providing them a way to do this.”

As for how he gets the banned Rabaa symbol onto campus, he said: “I come into the university using ways that the police are not aware of, with the help of a friend.”

“I don’t care that the university’s cameras photograph me. In fact, my future at the university is no longer an issue of concern for me . . . What is important is to confront the coup” against Mursi, he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

One eyewitness told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Muslim Brotherhood students assault us daily . . . The students climb to the top of the administrative offices to get us.”

The student, who also spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, said: “Tear gas is everywhere . . . and waving a white handkerchief is the only way to safely leave the university.”

“The Brotherhood protesters flee the tear gas and climb to the tops of buildings and then throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police. This is why we have taken to using the white handkerchief as a means to show that we are peaceful and not part of the protest,” the eyewitness said.

Tamer Yusri, a student at Al-Azhar’s Da’wa College, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We support the police in their confrontation of the Muslim Brotherhood protesters, whose sole aim is to disrupt the academic year.”

Egypt’s Interior Ministry has been keen to stress that “police forces dealt with the protesters with great care to avoid casualties,” but a number of students have been confirmed killed and injured in the protests.

Protesters and local media reported that two students, Ahmed Mamdouh and Mohamed Yahya, had been killed.

The Al-Azhar administration has denied any fatalities, but confirmed that at least seven students had been hospitalized.

Asharq Al-Awsat can confirm that Al-Azhar student Mohamed Yahya was not killed in the protest after visiting him in hospital.

Yahya confirmed that he is in good health and he thanked the university for providing him with medical treatment.

Yahya told Asharq Al-Awsat that he is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, saying: “I was in a lecture and we left the lecture hall where we came upon police and Muslim Brotherhood students confronting one another . .  The next thing I knew I was in hospital. I don’t know which side shot me.”

It appears now that there is no resolution to the ongoing protests in sight. Demonstrations erupted once more at Al-Azhar University on Friday, with Egyptian authorities announcing the arrest of 17 students after student protesters marched on the campus following Friday prayers.

Local media reported that the protests had disrupted traffic and resulted in clashes between protesters and police, who fired tear gas and water cannons.

In the north of Egypt, in the town of Manzala in Dakhalia Governorate, Muslim Brotherhood supporters took to the streets to protest against the Egyptian police’s handling of the Al-Azhar protests. Following what the Muslim Brotherhood has dubbed the “Friday of students and fuelling the revolution,” it appears that Egypt, and Al-Azhar University, still have a long way to go.