With universities restarting, Egypt clamps down on campuses to prevent protests

At Cairo University's campus, new, black steel walls have gone up. A private security firm has put up surveillance cameras. Guards have bomb-detection devices. Just outside, heavily armed riot police have permanent positions.

Summer vacation ends this weekend, and universities across Egypt are preparing for the return of students with a heavy, pre-emptive security clampdown. The aim is to prevent a resurgence of protests by supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president who was removed by the military just over a year ago.

Last school year, universities became the focus of pro-Morsi protests and campuses turned to war zones as police tried to suppress them. But the clampdown now is going beyond supporters of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists and threatens to silence all political activism in the universities.

It reflects what rights activists have warned is happening nationwide under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi: Dissent in general is being snuffed out in the name of fighting Islamists.

University presidents have been given new, unquestioned powers to expel students or fire professors suspected of involvement in protests or any political activities, without independent review of the cases.

In one of his first moves after his inauguration in June, el-Sissi halted the election of university presidents by professors and deans, a practice begun after the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Instead, he reinstated the Mubarak-era practice by which the head of state chooses the heads of universities, a sign of how the post is seen as crucial for keeping control.

Moreover, the government last year ended a traditional ban on security forces entering university campuses, allowing police to move in if the university president invites them, or simply if they feel it is necessary. Elections for student unions, a major venue for campus political activity, have been called off for the time being.

Last week, el-Sissi gave a speech in Cairo University, warning students "not to get involved with malignant activists." He accused an "unpatriotic group" — referring to the Brotherhood — of "seeking to sabotage the nation and using the youth to achieve its goals."

Egypt's universities have historically been an incubator for political activism of all stripes, from hard-line Islamists to secular leftists.

Last year, campuses were a vital lifeline for Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood after security forces shattered the group and its Islamist allies with a nationwide crackdown that killed hundreds of protesters and arrested more than 20,000. Protests were all but crushed in the streets, but they continued almost daily at universities.

The campus protests frequently turned to clashes as police battled with the Islamists. At least 16 students were killed in campus protests, according to the watchdog group Student Watch.

More than 1,000 students were arrested, according to security officials. Many of those have since received heavy prison sentences in mass trials. More than 500 students were expelled or suspended, almost all of them from the Al-Azhar chain of universities, which have large concentrations of Islamist students and saw the heaviest protests.

The protests eased when universities let out in June. Authorities delayed the start of this university school year for nearly two weeks to put security measures in place. With classes starting up nationwide Saturday — a school day here — pro-Morsi activists vow a new wave of protests.

Mahmoud al-Azhari, a student protest leader at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, said the clampdown will only increase student anger.

"After all the killings, the detentions and the expulsions, they (students) will not retreat from pushing for the liberation of their universities," he told The Associated Press.

Bahaa Eddin Abdel-Sadek was the student union head in Al-Azhar University's school of Religion and Shariah law, until he was expelled from the school in the spring. He said he never planned protests, only participated in them and that he was summarily expelled without being notified or given a chance to argue his side.

"There will be more demonstrations, and by students who never joined protests before," he said.

Security officials, in turn, promise to crush any demonstrations.

"If you extend your neck, we will break it for you," a senior official in charge of the "education" section of the National Security Agency — the main internal intelligence apparatus — told the AP when asked what the policy would be. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

Student activists who oppose both the Islamists and the security agencies say they are being crushed between the two.

"We lost everything, all weight, all voice. There is only terror now," said Mahmoud Radwan, a liberal who heads the student union at the University of Alexandria. "If you open your mouth, if you protest, you are considered Brotherhood, automatically."

Ezz Eddin Abu-Sttait, deputy head of Cairo University, told the AP that the university banned all activities by political parties, because they "exploit ... the presence of large number of young students in one place to recruit members."

But he insisted that "holding political forums or debates is not banned."

Cairo University president Gaber Nasser has told reporters that showing political emblems on campus will be penalized. Nasser has also dissolved all student clubs linked to political groups, according to the head of the Cairo University student union, Hashim Sharaf.

At Cairo University, considered the country's premier institution, heavy new steel walls have been erected at the main gate to provide a space for students to be searched.

A private security firm has been hired that can operate within the campus grounds. They effectively replace the official university guards, who since the 2011 revolution were barred from entering because they were seen as tools of police repression. Surveillance cameras are everywhere.

At Al-Azhar University, the campus walls have been raised to prevent protesters from throwing things at police outside — and the walls have been extended to prevent others from joining the protests. A metal and cement wall surrounds the administrative building, which protesters last year tried to storm.

Applicants to live in the dormitories have been tightly screened to weed out anyone involved in previous protests, said Yousser Hassanian, a media official at Al-Azhar University.

The Youth Affairs Offices at universities, a body that grants permits for student clubs and other activities, are planning to more aggressively promote non-political organizations with activities like beach trips or concerts to pull students away from political activities.

The offices are usually run by student informers for the police, said Osama Ahmed from the Socialist Revolutionaries, a leftist movement. Ahmed said the security agencies are working to clam surveillance all over campuses, with cameras and listening devices.

"The state seeks to deprive us of everything," he said.