Student protests in Cairo

Deborah Levinson

The American University in Cairo (AUC) is generally regarded as the best university in Egypt. But recently its reputation as the only school for brilliant scholarship students and the children of Egypt’s elite has begun to crumble.

Beginning last week, AUC students protested the university’s increase in tuition, which is scheduled to recur annually. For multiple days, AUC students locked the university’s gates and prevented students, faculty and staff from entering or exiting campus. Classes were cancelled, and students who live on campus were stuck without many of the resources that are normally available to them.

As an American student, I’m a bit conflicted. I do sympathize with their cause. I understand that university is ridiculously expensive across the globe and that paying $20,000 a year for tuition is a lot different in Egypt than it is in the USA.

AUC has some serious transparency issues, and the budget is definitely not in any shape to brag about it. Something needs to change, but my objection isn’t about their cause; it’s about their protest.

On the first day of the protest, I arrived at the campus to discover a BMW blocking the gate. A few hours later the gates were chained shut. Later that week the gates were already chained shut before the first bus of the day had arrived.

I have some issues with their methods, as did many of the students and faculty members with whom I spoke. For starters, it’s a safety concern. People live on campus. With the gates locked, they certainly can’t go anywhere, and if help was needed it would be unable to get in.

Beyond that, we’ve already paid for this semester. Preventing the school from holding classes isn’t gaining the protesters any fans, and the majority of the protesting students I spoke to knew even less about their school’s financial situation than I did. I’ve only been here for a month. That certainly doesn’t inspire much confidence from me.

The thing is protests are now a part of life here in Egypt. As I overheard one protester say to an international student, “If you don’t like protests, you came to the wrong country.” There are protests in the now famous Tahrir Square every week. Last year there were student and staff protests at AUC.

This protest culture is a bit strange for Americans because our first reaction to discontent isn’t always to protest. We certainly have protests, but being able to go out and gather with like-minded folks to speak our minds is old news.

But for Egyptians it’s new. Two years ago these protests would have been squashed in a matter of minutes. The idea that Egyptians can go out into the streets or onto their campus and express their views is still exciting. And yes, sometimes Egyptian protests get a bit messy. Even protesting has a learning curve, and with time Egyptians will figure out the best methods to express their discontent.

Though I’m not a fan of the current protests going on, both at AUC and in greater Cairo, I do get it. Egyptians have to work it out for themselves. They now have rights that we take for granted: they can gather in public, express their views and grow a long beard without fear of arrest.

As they do these things, they’ll figure out what works for them and what doesn’t. In the meantime, it’s fascinating to watch as the now-empowered citizens take advantage of their new rights. I do have one tip for them, though: the BMW isn’t going to help your cause.