Students and professors began demonstrating in mid-March, a month after Mubarak's ouster, to put pressure on the ruling military council. In early July, hundreds of university professors staged a sit-in at more than a dozen campuses across the country.Their efforts did not go unheeded. Last month, the presidents of Cairo, Fayoum, Helwan, and Al-Wadi Al-Gadid universities stepped down before their terms expired, while eight others resigned after their terms ended. Six other university heads, however, have refused to step down, and scores of top administrators remain in their positions. Although university professors say incumbent administrators would be welcome to try to regain their position by running in democratic elections, the military council last week reiterated its refusal to force their resignations.
"We don't want to strike, but we are obliged to do this because this is our only way to say that this cannot continue," says Samir, who was among a group of professors that on Sept. 14 met with members of the Supreme Council, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the country's de facto ruler. In addition to the planned Oct. 1 strike, professors plan to surround administration offices on campuses to prevent officials from entering the buildings.
University students have fully backed their instructors. Last week, the national student union organized demonstrations on campuses across the country in solidarity with the professors and announced its intention to participate in the strike by having students not attend classes.
"Why are we keeping these administrators in place when it is well known that State Security appointed them and that many of them are involved in rampant corruption?" says Hala Ahmed Safwat, a fourth-year student at Cairo University and a member of the April 6 Youth Movement. "This revolution was a revolution of the youth, which is us," she says. "If they don't fulfill our demands, we'll do another revolution if we need to."
The unprecedented wave of education strikes hit another milestone this month when it spread beyond the country's state institutions to reach the unlikeliest of places: the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt's most elite educational establishment.
Located on the western desert fringes of Cairo in a newly developed area called the Fifth Settlement, AUC's gleaming, multimillion-dollar campus is a world away from its historical home in the heart of Tahrir Square, and it boasts a level of corporate sponsorship that would tickle the imagination of most neoliberal economists, complete with a Pepsi gate, CIB fountain, and Mobinil tower. AUC students pay $17,000 a year in tuition — more than eight times the annual income of the average Egyptian.
Last week, thousands of students united with university workers to launch a mass strike and on-campus sit-in to protest the administration's policies. The students' demands include the reversal of a 9 percent tuition hike, permanent student representation on the university's budget committee, and transparency in school finances. But among their chief concerns was an end to what they viewed as the university's exploitive practices regarding its workers, including security guards, janitors, and groundskeepers. They accuse the administration of underpaying staff, some of whom reportedly work without contracts, insurance, or benefits for up to 16 hours a day.
"There are two letters that are very important: 'HR.' The university takes these two letters to mean 'human resources,' but they completely forgot that it also stands for 'human rights,'" says Ahmed Ezzat, 20, vice president of the student union that organized the strike. "We are demanding the human rights of the people who work at this university," he says, opting to speak in Arabic in deference to the security guards gathered around him listening.
According to several, separate accounts, striking university workers were threatened by management and were told they would be docked three days' salary for every day they participated in the sit-in. "I am here because of worsening work conditions and less pay," says Mohammed, a 26-year-old security guard who refused to give his last name. "This happened for no reason. We are not to blame for the budget, yet we work harder every day."
The situation reached a critical turning point five days into the strike when the university's president, Lisa Anderson — a former dean of faculty at Columbia University and co-chair of Human Rights Watch/Middle East — agreed to engage in an open forum organized by the protesting students and workers. During the discussion, which began with workers first airing their grievances, Anderson's responses were generally viewed as evasive and noncommittal. Protests erupted when Anderson decided, without warning, to leave the forum after an hour and a half and walked back inside her office surrounded by a phalanx of security guards.
Students then decided to take down the American flag flying on campus and march with it before returning it, untarnished, to the administration. "It was decided that the American flag representing ... those values [of democracy, freedom of expression, and human rights] should be dismounted and returned to professor Lisa as a reminder that she does not respect them," the students later wrote in an email to the AUC community.
Three days later, the university administration announced it had reached a compromise on many of the protesters' demands, including greater budget transparency, the creation of an ad hoc committee with student, alumni, and faculty representatives taking part in tuition and budget decisions, a guaranteed five-day work week for custodial and landscape staff, greater worker protections, and a review of employee salary levels. Anderson also stressed that no university employees would be punished for taking part in the strike.
The students and workers have announced the strike and sit-in are over, but say they will continue to push for further reforms and make sure the administration fulfills its promises.
"Whoever feels something is wrong, they should just get up and say something about it," says Omar El Sabh, a 20-year old junior. "This is the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit around all of Egypt."