Student union elections in Egyptian universities concluded in all governorates, giving way to a 50-member national student union—a president and vice-president from each of 22 public universities, two representatives of Al-Azhar University, and four representatives of the private colleges and higher institutes—though the group still lacks a union president, vice-president, and executive bureau. Although the current student body is destined to be short-lived (the next elections are already around the corner in October 2013), the results reflect the changing face of Egyptian politics, and have by and large highlighted the sharp decline in the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) popularity—at least on campus.

The elections—which began March—are the first fair student elections in over a quarter century, putting an end to the interference and influence of state security. The only violations observed were relatively minor and included campaigning too close to the voting stations. Although no official statistics were released, voter turnout was high—with students eager for “real” elections—and the process was a peaceful one. There were five rounds, starting at the level of each faculty, and building up to selection of a university-wide student union president and vice-president—who then become members of the national student union.  

In a number of universities, groups seeking to mobilize an anti-MB coalition succeeded in forming broad-based alliances—and in some cases managed to include politically independent students. Creating a broad coalition appeared critical to amassing enough votes to compete with the coordination of Brotherhood groups. Most prominently, the “Students’ Voice” coalition at Helwan University brought together independents with students from the liberal Constitution Party and the Revolutionary Socialists. Another coalition, the “Fourth Part,” gathering students from Strong Egypt, the Constitution Party, and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party—as well as independents—was formed at Cairo University to join forces against the MB. 

Despite media attention, the liberal forces are still nascent and new to campaigning; they lack the material and human resources to match the Brotherhood’s electoral machine. They also tend to be preoccupied with national political issues and the course of the revolution—thus distracting them from the more mundane (yet crucial) concerns of students like the price of textbooks and improvement of dorm conditions. 

Interestingly, Salafi groups did not throw their full weight into the elections—perhaps saving their energy for the next union elections in October, or simply because their discourse and style are not so appealing for university students. Salafi candidates chose to back revolutionary forces sympathetic to political Islam, such as Strong Egypt at Beni Suef University or similarly inclined independent candidates standing for election at South Valley University. The only exception was Minya University, where they chose to ally themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood along with Strong Egypt students. 

These “independent” candidates were far from homogenous; they included those truly autonomous of any political movement as well as those who were entering elections for the first time, but also students who had been previously affiliated with Mubarak’s National Democratic Party—often referred to derisively by others as “security thugs” and “regime remnants.” Students from the Brotherhood in some places chose to enter the elections on shared slates with independents. At Minya University, where the Brotherhood did not carry on its own in the first rounds, MB-backed candidates entered into pacts on the last two rounds of the elections to be able to win the presidency. 

In the face of strong competition and aware of the need to make further changes, students from the Brotherhood opted to switch up their electoral rhetoric, ditching names with religious overtones in favor of more inclusive ones: “Colors” (Ain Shams University), “Tomorrow will be Better” (Helwan University), “Dream with Me,” and “Girls and Boys Who Love Egypt” (Beni Sweif University). Some MB candidates were also pointedly self-effacing, hanging up election posters labeling themselves “The Oil and Sugar Distribution Center”—referencing the food handouts that MB parliamentary hopefuls used to win votes in the 2011 legislative elections. Such tactics were met with derision from liberal and independent students, who likewise chose names for their own election slates as “For a Sheep-Free Union” (a reference to the Brotherhood’s alleged herd mentality) or “The Renaissance is Ours and May God Give Us Strength”–alluding to the ruling Justice and Development Party’s much-heralded (but as of yet unimplemented) “renaissance” project. Open antagonism towards the Brotherhood has been an integral part of campaigning among opposition groups and has sometimes proven sufficient enough to win.

The independents claimed the lion’s share in the current students’ union with 24 seats out of 50. The Brotherhood only took 16, the revolutionary forces (Strong Egypt, the Constitution Party, and the Life Makers) won 7 while a single seat went to Salafis. The two seats attributed to private colleges were left unfilled following students’ protests over the exclusion by ministerial decision of candidates from a number of foreign universities of the electoral process. 

The independents’ headway reflects, in part, the Brotherhood’s poor performance on the national level and their declining popularity. Also, a wider disenchantment with political parties continues, leading many students to renounce political affiliation—preferring instead the “stability” represented by independents. Whoever is able to control the national student union will be able to change the Students’ Chart (setting the rules for the different rounds of student union elections, emphasizing the union’s duties as well as the organization of students’ activities) approved by the Prime Minister in January 2013 (not the President of the Republic, as stipulated in the University Regulation Law), which had been drafted and pushed through by MB-affiliated students without consultation with other groups or a student body referendum (the Brotherhood had taken control of the national student union in 2012, but with widespread election boycotts at the time). The Brotherhood-backed regulations are flawed—some articles directly contravene the University Regulation Law, while other articles restrict rights and freedoms on campus. For example, Article 331 states that the student union must be informed in advance of any student activity, and a two-thirds majority of union members can veto any activity deemed contrary to “the union’s objectives”—an open-ended wording allowing whichever political movement is in control to freely censor students.

While the student union elections are supposed to take place within the first 6 weeks of the academic year, according to the Students’ Chart, the previous student union (dominated by the members of the Brotherhood) insisted on scheduling these elections this late; their choice was backed by the Ministry of Higher Education (also dominated by the Brotherhood). Some view this as an effort to add legitimacy to the flawed Students’ Chart. Others consider the rushed election as the result of MB miscalculation who might have bet on the repetition of 2012 elections’ scenario (i.e. low students’ participation and boycott by liberal forces) to ensure their victory. Either way, the student union elections are being viewed as a forecasting tool and a mean of gauging support for the Brotherhood in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Moreover the decision (on 17 March 2013) by the Universities’ Supreme Council to ban parties’ activities on campus is considered by many as a first step towards political neutralization of universities—a return to Mubarak-era practices that students will never accept.

Chérine Chams El-Dine is an assistant professor of political science at Cairo University.

* This article was translated from Arabic.