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Egyptians Now Protest Against Mubarak Surrogates

Neil MacFarquhar|The New York Times
Friday, 8 Apr 2011 | 2:29 AM ET

Banners fluttering from the rooftop of Cairo University’s faculty of mass communications denounce the dean as a Mubarak-era lackey. Fistfights between the dean’s student opponents and supporters erupt like summer squalls, with the din often emptying classrooms as students pour into the main lobby either to join the fray or watch.

An anti-government protestor holds a blooded Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square on February 3, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.
Getty Images
An anti-government protestor holds a blooded Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square on February 3, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.

“What is happening in this faculty is a reflection of what is happening in the society after the revolution,” said Sherif Nafie, 30, a teacher’s assistant in the journalism department. “There is anger, a feeling of dissatisfaction in work, with the salaries, in life.”

The protests against the dean are just one reflection of the demand throughout Egypt for a new order, nearly two months after Hosni Mubarak was toppled. In government ministries, factories and especially universities, daily protests have focused on those viewed as Mr. Mubarak’s surrogates. Demonstrators complain that the dreaded secret police vetted every candidate for an important job under Mr. Mubarak, and that now the country deserves a clean slate.

“The people need change, real change,” Mr. Nafie said.

The protest phenomenon has spread across the country—Mubarak supporters might call it the latest plague in the land of Egypt — with people voicing previously stifled demands. Many fear that if they do not capitalize on this moment, the revolution may prove fruitless. Indeed, many worry that it already is.

“People are anxious that this post-revolutionary moment will end without them gaining their rights,” said Ehab al-Kharat, a psychiatrist organizing a new party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

“It is the first time in Egyptian history that people are taking part in running their own institutions and organizations,” he said. “Democracy is not just about electoral ballots and politics at the national level — it is about how you run your organization, how you run your small neighborhood, it is about having a say in every aspect of your life.”

The problem, as both he and Mr. Nafie noted, is that Egyptians lack experience in the give and take of democracy, so the push for change is marked by accentuated hostility and mistrust.

No institution seems immune. The army deployed armored vehicles outside the offices of the sheik of Al Azhar, the highest religious authority in Egypt, because of the ferocity of protests by workers demanding higher salaries and better working conditions. Sheik Ahmed al-Tayyib defused the tension by meeting with a workers’ delegation and agreeing to study the demands.

Employees at Misr Insurance gather regularly at a downtown Cairo crossroads to demand the firing of the head of the state-owned insurance conglomerate because he still seeks to carry out the privatization plan drafted under Mr. Mubarak. Sometimes the protests dwindle under a combination of appeasement and threats. Mohamed al-Sayed, a labor organizer among the 9,000 workers at the state-run Nagaa Hamady Aluminum Factory in upper Egypt, said workers claiming that managers appointed under Mr. Mubarak were corrupt stopped their sit-in after a small raise and promises to investigate — as well as threats to prosecute them by military courts.

At Cairo University, some faculty members and students are demanding the firing of both the president, Hossam Kamel, and Samy Abdel Aziz, the dean of the mass media faculty.

Mr. Abdel Aziz was a high-profile member of the ruling National Democratic Party and criticized the uprising. Excerpts from his columns for the Roz el-Yousef daily are now strung up in front of the department.

They include paeans to Egyptian democracy after the November parliamentary election, widely considered among the most rigged in Egyptian history, describing the vote as marked by “transparency, equality and impartiality.”

He compared Mr. Mubarak’s “inspirational leadership” to that of Gandhi, Churchill, de Gaulle and Kennedy. He said it was thanks to Mr. Mubarak that Egyptians had the right to protest at all, ignoring brutal police repression. And he called the police abuse documented on the Facebook page that helped galvanize opposition “inconceivable.” But by Jan. 28, after the protests mushroomed, he was backtracking, suggesting that Egypt could learn from its youth.

Those columns form the basis for the movement to oust him. “We reject the idea that someone who tries to manipulate public opinion should guide this institution,” said Hamid Fathy, a 22-year-old senior.

Middle East Turmoil
Middle East Turmoil

The confrontation started Feb. 23, when classes resumed. In a volatile meeting, faculty and students presented the dean with a list of demands.

Mr. Abdel Aziz agreed to work with them, but student protests erupted March 6. The most violence occurred March 23, when the dean said he could not leave a meeting room because students and faculty members demanding his dismissal were lying on the floors, in the elevator and in the stairwells.

After a nearly nine-hour standoff, the military police arrived, escorted Mr. Abdel Aziz out and then cleared the building. Students claimed the officers used excessive force, hurling them downstairs and using electronic cattle prods, much of which they blame on Mr. Abdel Aziz. He has not returned to the building since.

Mr. Abdel Aziz, 57, defends his record as dean, saying he never proselytized for the party at the school.

He said he upgraded curriculums, added computers, and pushed the student newspaper to publish regularly. He found corporate sponsors to refurbish a building that he said had had no maintenance for 16 years.

“I was not against the revolution, and there is no shame in saying I was a member of the N.D.P.,” said Mr. Abdel Aziz, who founded an advertising agency and looks the part, dressed in jeans, a fine tweed jacket and suede loafers. “A member of a party should defend what he believes.”

The dean said he had submitted his resignation twice, but it was rejected and ultimately he supports the decision of not letting the roughly 3,500 students dictate policy.

“Everybody feels that the revolution came to break down everything, but the law is still there,” he said. “We cannot obey the opinion of the students, to allow them to interfere in something that they have nothing to do with.”

The protests attracted national attention. Writing in the daily Al Ahram, itself once a staunch government mouthpiece now under new management, one columnist wrote that the university administration was running scared.

“The board of Cairo University considered the demand to change him as a call to bring down all state structures, in fact to bring down the state itself,” wrote Abdullah Abdelsalam, saying Mr. Abdel Aziz was a unique case, given his unapologetic support for the former ruling party.

But the administration is wrong, he said, to make the case “a litmus test that if they are lenient, then all the deans and the president of the university will lose their positions in the same way.”

Indeed, the university has dug in, with 11 of the professors opposing the dean referred to a disciplinary committee on charges of inciting the students.

“The forces of the counter-revolution were trying to keep you off campus,” said one of the professors to a group of visitors who sneaked in to interview them after waiting a week for official permission.

There have been moments of high drama — one supporter of the dean threatened to fling himself off the roof if Mr. Abdel Aziz was not made dean for life, but relented after an hour.

Students tired of the bedlam said they just wanted Mr. Abdel Aziz to go, simply so that they could move on.

Like many Egyptians with grievances, the protesters want either the interim prime minister or the ruling military council to solve the problem, but there is no telling when that might happen.

“As a student I thought I should pick a side and support something, so I found myself taking the side of the protesters, even though they committed violations too,” said Khadija Ghanem, a 19-year old student. “I want a dean who protects me, I want a dean who speaks the truth.”

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