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Bringing the Revolution to Campus: An Interview with March 9 Activist Laila Soueif

[Poster calling for [Poster calling for "Strike to Save the University." Image by Nicola Pratt]

Laila Soueif, assistant professor of mathematics, Cairo University, is one of the founding members of the March 9 Movement for the Independence of Universities. The movement was founded in 2004 and became a part of the growing terrain of dissent that preceded the January 25 revolution (alongside Kifaya and other movements for change in different quarters). March 9 has opposed state security, government, and other ideological interventions into Egyptian university campuses, which stifle academic freedom. The movement has also been involved in strikes and protests by university faculty—both before and after the revolution—for better pay and pensions as well as for greater investment in the higher education sector. The movement is named after a date in Cairo University’s history (1932), when the then university president threatened to resign in protest of the government’s decision to fire Taha Hussein, then dean of the Faculty of Arts.

In this interview, conducted in February 2012, a few days after a student-led general strike, Professor Soueif discusses the role of the March 9 Movement, the impact of the revolution on Egyptian universities, and the challenges that they still face.

Nicola Pratt (NP): What role did the March 9 movement play in the January 25th revolution?

Laila Soueif (LS): It was not a direct role. But if you look at the years between 2001 and 2011, we were part of the constant chipping away at the pillars of the regime that occurred during this time. March 9 is a small movement but it has been serious and consistent and, therefore, has a lot of credibility. Every member of the March 9 Movement was in Tahrir Square but not always representing March 9. We led big demonstrations of university staff on several days, including the final Friday. The marches were mobilized by March 9 in coordination with University Professors for Reform, which is basically a Muslim Brotherhood organization founded in 2007. March 9 and University Professors for Reform also mobilized university professors to march in other cities during the revolution.

NP: Before the revolution, what sort of obstacles did the movement face?

LS: Before the revolution, colleagues at other universities were harassed for their involvement in March 9. We are lucky that the Cairo University president realized that this sort of harassment is not good for the university’s image. In the run-up to the 2010 parliamentary elections, everything was put into the hands of the associates of Gamal Mubarak and there was a concerted effort to shut everyone up. In our staff club elections, people were actually prevented from running, which had not happened before. Students were prevented from taking their exams for hanging up posters on campus.

Despite the constraints that colleagues faced, we had a number of triumphs. At Cairo University, we managed to get the university to reverse its decision preventing students from taking their exams. We were also successful in bringing a court case against police on campuses. In 2010, the court ruled that police should be removed from university campuses. And at Cairo University, we were actually successful in getting the university administration to abide by the decision. After the court’s judgement was released, we organized a rally in Ayn Shams University. The university administration there set baltagiya on us, and the president referred the faculty to a disciplinary hearing. He also sent a file of the names of Cairo University professors participating in the rally to the Cairo University president. But he did not act on it.

NP: How are things on campus since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak?

LS: After the toppling of Mubarak, there were a lot of protests on campuses. University faculty went on strike in March 2011 asking for better pay and conditions, as well as for elected deans of faculties to replace Mubarak-era appointees. We were successful in getting elected deans, but the issue of our salaries and university budgets are still on the table for discussion. This year’s higher education budget is actually lower than last year’s.

When the students came back after the toppling of Mubarak, they wanted to change the administration to rid it of remnants of the old regime. There were lots of protests and sit-ins calling for the administration to resign. But the administration refused to leave and they were backed in their decision by the minister of higher education and the military council. Also, the majority of professors wanted to wait until the end of term to have an overhaul of the administration. As March 9, we felt obliged to accept the mood of the majority of the professors. But we pushed for the elections of deans of faculties to take place at the end of that term. It was only in the Faculty of Mass Communications that students continued to protest and to clash with the administration. They were really against their dean, who had been very close to Gamal Mubarak and had written against the revolution. He was finally asked to take sick leave and his deputy took over.

Finally, after much delay and much protesting on our part, we got elections but actually a lot of the old administration got re-elected. I think it is because the majority of professors are quite conservative. Nevertheless, having elected deans makes a difference in how they behave, even if many of them are the same as before the revolution. The law stipulating the appointment of deans has not been amended yet. Therefore, SCAF appointed those professors that we voted for as deans. They did not object to any of the elected professors.

We are now working on drafting a new university law. It is also something that needs time and we need to wait until after the constitution is amended. The minister of higher education has appointed an advisory council to look into it. But we are saying that the minister should not be involved and that this is something for universities to decide themselves. The minister wants to introduce the same sort of neoliberal reforms that the previous minister, under Mubarak, tried to introduce under the guise of “modernizing” universities. These reforms include introducing student fees. There needs to be reform in universities and some of the suggested changes are good, but they present the positive suggestions with the neoliberal reforms as a package.

March 9 is now planning a series of workshops to discuss a new university law. We are thinking of refocusing our campaigning more on academic freedom as there are other movements who are addressing issues of pay and [work] conditions, such as the University Professors for Reform, Ayn Shams Independence Stream, and a movement of younger faculty.

Each one of these movements has [general] members in the hundreds and active members in the tens. Every university has a local movement. There are plans to form a national trade union but there is not yet any consensus over whether to create a professional syndicate, like the journalists, doctors, and lawyers, or whether to have an independent union. It is very difficult to establish a professional syndicate as it must be done by a law. But, syndicates are allocated resources by the state. On the other hand, it is much easier to set up an independent union but it will not have any financial status. Another possibility is to form a federation of university staff clubs. Every university has a staff club and these are now freely elected. Within a year, we could form a union of staff clubs. Staff clubs are governed by the law of associations and there will be a new law for associations, so we should wait to see what happens there.

NP: What about the recent student-led strikes calling for SCAF to step down?

LS: The students called for a student strike and a general strike. However, the majority of Egyptians were against a general strike and staff were divided on the issue. But there was consensus amongst staff that the administration should not pressure the students. Even those against the strike argued for the right of the students to freedom of expression. This is new. 

The arguments against the strike were to wait and see what happens after the presidential elections and whether the military will step down. They do not believe that this is the right time; that there is an ongoing political process and we should wait until that process has finished. We should not apply maximum pressure now.

Those in favour of the strike argue that the military is sabotaging the process. Some argue that the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be trusted to oversee the process, which has given ammunition for people to say that the strike is against the elected parliament and thus unacceptable because the Muslim Brotherhood are elected representatives. Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood students supported the student strike–but not the general strike.

There was a student strike from Saturday 11 February until Monday 13 February. But there were very few classes scheduled anyway, as it was registration week. The Engineering Faculty completely cancelled classes because it held a period of mourning for the three students who died in the Port Said football stadium massacre. There were huge demonstrations on campus, calling for SCAF to step down.

NP: How do you feel now?

LS: I am frustrated but optimistic. I think that we are heading in the right direction. There will be no way to govern this country unless there are radical changes that address the demands of the poor, the youth, and the most marginalized. But everything is on hold. The problem is the way that the military council has been keeping things as they are. They are not fit to govern a country. Many of them are against the revolution and even those who are not, they don’t know how to govern a country and they don’t understand how the nature of power has changed since the revolution.

I think that they will step down but will want to keep hold of some strings of power and they do not want to be answerable to anyone. The game plan of the Muslim Brotherhood is to pry the military from power gradually. But I do not think that will work. They need to do it as soon as possible. Parliament has to shape up or the people will kick them out. People have elected them to make Egypt a better place to live in.

The March 9 Movement was about ridding universities of the interference by the security, government, and ideological forces. We have managed to get rid of security interference and we are working on getting rid of government interference. We still have some ideological interferences, but the difference now is the students. One journalist, a remnant of the old regime, wrote a story that the English Department in the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University was undermining the morals of the students because they were teaching novels on lesbianism. Before the revolution, these sorts of media accusations would have had us running for cover. But the students made a Facebook page saying that they could read what they wanted and that they were able to think for themselves. Even Muslim Brotherhood students agreed.

The spirit amongst the students and young staff is remarkable. In another case, we received a complaint from a university in upper Egypt. A young Christian woman was not appointed as a teaching assistant despite having the second best marks in her class. The dean had told the other short-listed students for the position that they should pressure her to decline the appointment. The person who was number five on the list, a young Muslim woman, said that this was unfair and she alerted us to the situation. This is new. There is a new spirit of fairness amongst young people.

If you look at the people on the ground, you get a positive image. People have radically changed. That is not going to be reversed. But if you look at the level of political leaders, you feel pessimistic.

Everyone who was in Tahrir Square is now trying to change something around them. There is a new will to change and it is being expressed in different ways.

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