This Cairo College Campus Is Now a 'Warzone'

Egypt’s prestigious Al Azhar University has been under siege since last summer by students protesting the military coup—and both sides are preparing for the next round of battle when school resumes next month.

Mohammed Bendari\APA, via Landov

Youssof Salhen, a spokesman for Cairo’s Student Anti-Coup Movement, refers to the places on Al Azhar University’s main campus where he and his fellow students fought police as “warzones.”

To Youssof—a self-described “independent Islamist” and “moderate Sufi”—the streets of the campus are his trenches, the loose gravel his ammunition, and his camera is his Kalishnikov. The deserted, trashed streets of Al Azhar are populated now by building contractors, Chinese construction equipment, and blue Mitsubishi trucks with big “Masha’a Allah” (“Praise God”) stickers. Graffiti covers almost every wall and some of the trees in the Agricultural Department’s garden are burnt, their branches cut off to use as fuel for fires to combat tear-gas.

After security forces raided the sit-in in Cairo’s Raba’a square six months ago, where Egyptians opposed to the military-backed ouster of President Mohammed Morsi had gathered, the students of nearby Al Azhar mounted an almost constant battle against the pro-military administration of the university, stretching until the end of last semester in December. The Student Anti-Coup Movement claims that, from the time of the Raba’a sit-in onward, over 100 Al Azhar students died in protests across Egypt, mainly in Cairo. (It should be noted that the Anti-Coup movement has been known to exaggerate facts and numbers.)

To combat the protesters, university administrators postponed the start of the new semester from earlier this month to March 8th, so they could build a new infrastructure. This infrastructure will include a ten-foot-high, gray concrete wall, topped with barbed wire, which will ring the dormitories.

The old entrance and exit connecting the dorms to the campus are still in place, but now they pointlessly lead into the new concrete barrier. Posters from Morsi’s 2012 campaign cling helplessly to the old entranceway; the paper adverts have started to peel as they head into a second year plastered to the gateway. The dorms are also plagued by an ant infestation. Ants crawl everywhere, forcing visitors to watch their step. Beyond the walls, the courtyard is still a construction site with vacant student housing looming overhead in the distance. Some dorm room balconies are still covered in anti-military graffiti, but it’s hard to see it from the campus-side of the thick concrete impediment. “We call it the ‘mkhym askr’ [meaning “military camp”],” says Youssof of the dormitories’ new look.

A pudgy, bald man in a suit and sweater ensemble stands in an opening between two of the newly erected walls. He’s a clerk with the university’s administration office. The dorms are closed, he says, until the university restarts. “This wall will prevent bad things from happening,” he says, “It will give control over the demonstrations.”

“You come here to study, you take your diploma, your education, and then you return to your country as a doctor, as an engineer; as whatever profession you have. But instead of that you just go and protest?” he continues, “That doesn’t make sense.”

(Besides, he adds as if twisting the knife, “the students burnt the trees.”)

“I was there,” said Youssof, after hearing this. “[They were] burnt by the live bullets and tear gas.” But of course, he admits, they were also burned by and in the fires that the protesters lit to ward the tear gas off.

Just a few months ago, Youssof remembers, he had been pulling bodies out of the back entrance to those dorms, loading the injured onto makeshift ambulances so they could be sent off to private Brotherhood-friendly hospitals nearby. “It was our playground,” he reminisces darkly. He speculates that the new wall will make it harder to get the injured out in the future.

In response to the protests, the university suspended quite a few students. And one Cairo court ruled that future protests will be illegal unless approved by the university’s administration.

The dormitories aren’t the only area of Al Azhar getting a makeover. The central administrative building just down the street is also receiving a new face. Since the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Mohamed Ahmed Al-Tayeb, endorsed the removal of Morsi by the military, the administration became an obvious target for the protesters.

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Al Azhar has now taken down the awning that used to sit above the administrative building’s front door. During the protests last year, some students climbed on top of the awning and wrote graffiti all over it. The new overhead sign is too small to hold a person, meaning there won’t be any second-story protesting this go-around.

Additionally, cheap, black, shiny metal fencing with sharp arrow-head-style spikes on top has begun to surround the structure. A crane lifts each individual segment high into the air and then down into its place, one by one. Workers on the ground then weld them into place. The process of installing the fencing began a few weeks ago, and is now about halfway through.

A short, bespectacled, balding man in a black fleece and a white helmet stands to the side, supervising the construction. “They study, they eat, they sleep here for free. Why are they here protesting?” he says when asked about the effect the new security measures will have on the student protesters, “If you want something, just suggest it and say it with your mouth. And it has to be a demand of a large group of people, not one or ten.” (Youssof notes, “If we’re ten, they’re not going to build this fence!”)

Youssof has to run now, though. It has been a long day. He had to get up early to do his military training at Al Azhar, as mandated by the government for all Egyptian male college students. He understands the irony, but is quick to note he doesn’t have to do any exercises, because he was made the head of a group of peers. Instead, he gets to tell his classmates what exercises they should do.

Near the main exit gate sits two military APCs, staffed by at least a dozen fully-armed soldiers. As he nears the exit, Youssof cracks a wry smile. The protests will return next month, he insists, on the first day of the new semester. Furthermore, he claims the Student Anti-Coup Movement has already drawn up plans for mass jumps of both new fences with minimal injuries, but he refuses to divulge the details.

The confidence this young man exudes is obvious, if not reckless. But soon he’ll be back, fighting the police in the streets of his campus. It is his war. And the campus, fortified with new obstacles, is his “warzone.”