Middle Class Aspirations Temper Rebellion for Egypt’s Students

Over the past several weeks, 21-year-old student Yousef Salhen has led the charge on campus, risking life and liberty to take part in violent clashes with security forces in protest at the government that ousted elected president Mohamed Morsi last year.

On Twitter and Facebook, the al Azhar University English and Islamic studies student has called on the hundreds of thousands of students in Egypt sitting career-defining exams this month, to rip up their test sheets and join anti-government marches instead.

“From how the coup government acts, the laws it passes, the punishments it gives, it shows we are powerful, and driving them crazy,” he says during an interview away from his campus, which has in recent weeks has been the scene of daily protests. “We are trying peaceful escalation of the protests, like boycotting exams.”

But even as he advocates an exam boycott, he is still dutifully taking his third-year exams, to hedge his bets against what he himself ultimately concedes is a doomed cause. “It’s very confusing,” he says, his backpack loaded with books. “I will continue my life and continue my studies. I will not stop my life for the coup.”

Mr Salhen’s seemingly contradictory actions highlight how middle class aspirations temper the political passions of Egyptian students, some defiantly taking part in protests while at the same time sensing that their cause is lost.

“We are no longer afraid of tear gas and bullets,” says Mr Salhen, who is not a member of Mr Morsi’s banned Muslim Brotherhood though his family has links with the organisation. “But if there are so many people against us, and the administration and the police are against us, then we’re burdening ourselves with more than we can take.”

The government is determined to make the tests run as smoothly as possible to restore a sense of normality and bolster its credibility. This, combined with the pragmatism of protesters such as Mr Salhen, mean that a few thousand students, at most, are taking part in the exam boycott.

The protests have, however, succeeded in disrupting university life. Universities in Cairo and elsewhere delayed the start of the autumn semester by a month because of the political unrest. In recent days, students have burnt tires and thrown stones at police opening fire at them with rubber bullets and tear gas.

A number of students have been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for their role in the protests at Salhen’s university, part of a venerable religious institution. Last Friday, more than 12 people were killed nationwide in the unrest.

Despite admitting the cause is probably lost, Mr Salhen and his sister, also an Azhar student, risk everything in daily cat-and-mouse maneuvers with the security forces.

Once, when leaving campus, he was stopped and frisked by uniformed police, who were distracted and let him go just as they were about to discover a mobile phone loaded with protest videos and leaflets with the four-fingered salute that has become the insignia of the anti-government movement.

“We were on a straight democratic path and we tasted freedom,” says Mr Salhen, referring to the controversial year under Mr Morsi’s elected presidency.

“Now I have friends who have been killed, who have been detained and tortured.”

Mr Salhen’s decision to continue with his exams has earned him the scorn of some of the coup opponents. They call him a traitor. “They say, ‘You’re taking the test upon the blood of your brothers’,” he says.

While sitting one exam, he heard the pop-pop of gunfire and tear gas canisters. The putrid gas began wafting into the exam room burning his eyes, while screaming could be heard from outside. Dazed, he continued with his paper.

“The government claims those who protest are losers, academically and socially,” he says. “We’re not. I want to teach. I want to continue research. I would like to be a leader some day.”

Source: The Financial Times