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Student Political Activism in Democratizing Egypt


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Book Chapter: 

Abdel-Fattah Mady, "Student Political Activism in Democratizing Egypt," in:

Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism: Illiberal Intelligentsia and the Future of Egyptian Democracy

Editors: Dalia Fahmy & Daanish Faruqi 

Contributors: Khaled Abou El Fadl, Ahmed Abdel Meguid, Sahar Aziz, Emran El-Badawi, Mohamad Elmasry, Dalia Fahmy, Daanish Faruqi, Joel Gordon, Amr Hamzawy, Ann M. Lesch, Abdel-Fattah Mady, Hesham Sallam, Emad El-Din Shahin.

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About the book:

The liberatory sentiment that stoked the Arab Spring and saw the ousting of long-time Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak seems a distant memory. Democratically elected president Mohammad Morsi lasted only a year before he was forced from power to be replaced by precisely the kind of authoritarianism protestors had been railing against in January 2011. Paradoxically, this turn of events was encouraged by the same liberal activists and intelligentsia who'd pushed for progressive reform under Mubarak.

This volume analyses how such a key contingent of Egyptian liberals came to develop outright illiberal tendencies. Interdisciplinary in scope, it brings together experts in Middle East studies, political science, philosophy, Islamic studies and law to address the failure of Egyptian liberalism in a holistic manner – from liberalism's relationship with the state, to its role in cultivating civil society, to the role of Islam and secularism in the cultivation of liberalism. A work of impeccable scholarly rigour, Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism reveals the contemporary ramifications of the state of liberalism in Egypt.

Editorial Reviews

"I read Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism with a sigh of relief that understanding one of the most significant events in our contemporary history is in the caring and competent hands of some seminal critical thinkers. Dalia F. Fahmy and Daanish Faruqi have brought together a formidable volume challenging what they aptly call "Illiberal Intelligentsia" and gauge the future of the Egyptian democracy beyond and through their historic failures. What the community of critical thinkers gathered in this volume discover and discuss is no mere indictment of the Egyptian liberal intellectuals and their catastrophic failure at a crucial historic juncture, but something far more deeply troubling in the very nature of unexamined globalized liberalism. The result is a fiercely radical constellation of critical thinking indispensable for our understanding not just of Egypt and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, but in fact the very legacy of liberalism in the 21st century."

—Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

"This edited volume is an essential contribution towards understanding the current state of affairs in Egypt. The different chapters offer a sense of the underlying dynamics at work within Egyptian society (among the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, secularists and the youth). The reader is invited to consider the complexity of the situation and what it will take for Egyptian people to find their way towards freedom and justice."

—Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies, University of Oxford

"An extraordinary and wide-ranging exploration of the Arab spring's excitement and reversal in Egypt. Compulsory reading to grasp the role of Islam, secularism, authoritarianism and liberalism in contemporary Egypt."

—Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Islamic Studies, Keough School of Global Affairs, University of Notre Dame

"The question of democracy in Muslim societies has generated heated debate on the role of mainstream Islamist parties and democratization. Can they moderate their views? Will they respect electoral outcomes? Are they committed to political pluralism? The same questions, however, have been rarely asked of liberal and secular forces who occupy the same political space. This is precisely what is unique about this book. Focusing on Egypt's Arab Spring democratic transition, it examines the political behavior of Egyptian liberals during the transition period and after the 2013 military coup. In doing so, the editors and contributors make an important and exceptional contribution to understanding both the persistence of authoritarianism in the Arab-Islamic world and the obstacles to democracy. It is a must read volume that challenges stereotypes and deepens our grasp of the politics and societies of the Middle East."

— Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies, University of Denver, and author of Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies

"The heroic events of January and February 2011 seemed at first to rewrite the rules of Middle Eastern politics. One of the longest ruling autocrats in the Arab World fell not to a military coup, an assassination, or violent uprising, but to the immovable presence of the people demonstrating in public. The Tahrir Revolution was 'liberal' in the sense that its demands were for freedom, the rule of law, and social justice. Its promise was that these goals seemed to reflect a shared will uniting the secular and the Islamist, the masses and the middle class. Two short years later that promise was shattered in a supreme act of anti-political, counter-revolutionary violence. How did many Egyptian 'liberals,' who two years earlier stood side by side with Islamists against Mubarak in Tahrir, and one year earlier voted for Morsi for President, come to side with a return to military dictatorship over constitutional politics? Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism brings together many of the best scholars on Egyptian politics to answer just this question."

—Andrew F. March, Associate Professor of Political Science, Yale University, and author of Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus

Product Details

Paperback: 416 pages

Publisher: Oneworld Publications (January 17, 2017)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1780748825

ISBN-13: 978-1780748825

Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.9 inches


Chapter 7: Student political activism in democratizing Egypt

Abdel-Fattah Mady1

Introduction (Draft)

The Egyptian university throughout the nation's modern history has been a fulcrum for generating political and civic activism. Indeed, it is not altogether surprising that the current regime is so intent on cracking down on student activism, precisely because it so astutely recognizes the potential of the university as a site of civic debate and protest.2 Presently, there are nearly two million university students enrolled in twenty-four state universities and twenty private universities throughout Egypt.3 Owing to a student body that has grown tremendously since the early twentieth century – the national education budget doubled between 1930 and 1953, and the student body accordingly doubled from 1945 to 1951 alone4 – the university will continue to serve as a deeply conducive site to political organizing. Accordingly, to explicate the full implications of university political organizing on the Egyptian body politic, this chapter will address the history of student activism in Egypt. By examining the role and impact of Egyptian university student activism on the promulgation of political activism and democratization, we will ultimately be able to offer a meaningful prognosis on its future role in contributing to Egyptian civic and democratic life.

Sketching the landscape of university activism across its longitudinal history in modern Egypt will prove pivotal in addressing its role and impact in Egyptian civic life, past, present, and future. I will proceed with this investigation with several key metrics in mind. How effective has student activism been in generating positive political change? What role has political affiliation of the student body – be it of leftist, liberal, or Islamist disposition – had on the direction of activist initiatives on campuses? What is the relationship between student activism and broader movements in Egyptian political and civil society? How did student activism respond to or evolve in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution culminating in the overthrow of Mubarak, or the subsequent 2013 revolution that culminated in the overthrow of Mohammad Morsi? And finally, what are the implications for future activism in the aftermath of the return of authoritarian rule under Sisi? Or more specifically, what future role does student activism stand to play in democratizing Egypt and cultivating a vibrant civil society?

Indeed, even in the context of the authoritarianism of post-coup Egypt, the university remains a pillar of Egyptian civic life – lionized as such even by figures otherwise wholly supportive of the Sisi regime's crackdown on civil society. For example, the paradoxical career of Dr. Mohammed Abol Ghar is a case in point. From a vibrant career prior to the January 2011 uprisings in support of substantive democratic reform, to his role as cofounder and interim leader of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the Cairo University gynecology professor has since thrown his firm support behind the July 3 overthrow of Mohammed Morsi and the concomitant crackdown on Egyptian civil society. Going so far as to argue explicitly that national security interests trump individual freedoms, most recently Abol Ghar has given his imprimatur for the democratic process to precisely limit rights and freedoms to fit the current security needs of the state.5

Yet for all his proclivities to support the new authoritarianism in Egypt, there is one arena in Egyptian civil society he is not willing to circumscribe in the name of national interest: the Egyptian university system. Fully faithful to the project he helped inaugurate in the March 9th Movement for University Independence, Abol Ghar in one of his regular columns for Al-Masry al-Youm offers significant pushback to the military regime he now so strongly supports. Addressed as an open letter offering advice (nasihah) to Sisi, Abol Ghar firmly yet politely and respectfully chastises the Egyptian leader for attempting to politically manipulate the system of selection of university leadership. Declaring such a decree unconstitutional, Abol Ghar exhorts Sisi to reconsider the consequences of this hasty measure, arguing, "Mr. President, without an independent and free university, nations do not progress. The legislation of this law in this hasty manner is flawed and harmful, and you will go down in history for this huge mistake."6

Suffice to say, even despite Abol Ghar's lukewarm commitments to "social justice and democratic change"7 under the current regime, he nonetheless firmly maintains them in the context of the university system. Thus, even in tenuous times in which Egyptian civic life is otherwise under attack, it seems that leftist and liberal activists in this vein continue to covet the free and independent Egyptian university as a site for the promulgation of liberal values. The student movement within the university context, moreover, is a fundamental component of the university's role in the cultivation and preservation of Egyptian civic life. It is thus imperative to better situate the student movement across its historical trajectory, to do full justice to its potential as a fulcrum of civil society.

To properly address these concerns, I will proceed in a linear chronological fashion. First, I will offer a brief history of the emergence of student movements during the colonial period. Then I will move on in the second section to analyze student activism under Nasser, with a particular focus on the 1954 crisis and the 1968 student uprisings. In the third and fourth sections, I will investigate, respectively, the uprisings of 1972–3 and 1977 under Sadat, and student activism more broadly under Mubarak. I will end by exploring student activism in the contemporary context, from the 2011 uprising to its current status in the aftermath of the crackdown on the university scene under Sisi since 2013, and the implications for future activism in this milieu.



1. The author would like to express his gratitude and appreciation to Muhammad Alsayed, Radwa Darwish, and Muhammad Abdelsalam for providing various types of research assistance in support of this project. Moreover, I am highly indebted to Daanish Faruqi, who has been very helpful in editing and finalizing this chapter. All mistakes remain the responsibility of the author.

2. Louisa Loveluck, "Egypt's universities, centers of dissent, reopen under strict new controls," Christian Science Monitor, October 10, 2014, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2014/1010/Egypt-s-universities-centers-of-dissent-reopen-under-strict-new-controls

3. "Supreme Council of Universities," April 18, 2015, http://www.scu.eun.eg/

4. Ahmed Abdalla, Alttalaba wa Al-siyaasa fi Misr (The Students and Politics in Egypt), trans. Ekram Youssef (Cairo: Sina Publishers, 1991), 41.

5. Karima 'Abd al-Ghani, "Abol Ghar li 'al-Ahram': Qalb al masriyiin jami'an ma' al-dawla," Al-Ahram Online, November 13, 2015, http://www.ahram.org.eg/News/131723/145/453551/%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D8%AC%D9%84%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%A8/%D8%A3%D8%A8%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%BA%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D9%84%D9%80-%C2%AB%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%87%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%85%C2%BB-%D9%82%D9%84%D8%A8-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B5%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%AC%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%B9%D8%A7-%D9%85%D8%B9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A9.aspx

6. http://www.almasryalyoum.com/news/details/473745

7. "Mohamed Abul-Ghar," Jadaliyya, November 18, 2011, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/3173/mohamed-abul-ghar

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