CAIRO – Riot police moved into Egypt’s main Islamic university on Saturday, firing tear gas and breaking up a strike by students that threatened to disrupt midterms. One student was killed in the melee, an administration building was torched and students fled from exam rooms.
Police say they entered eastern Cairo’s Al-Azhar campus, the site of frequent clashes in recent weeks, and deployed around other Egyptian universities to prevent supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi from intimidating other students trying to take the tests.
Pro-Morsi activists have called for an exam boycott but deny government claims that they threatened anyone.
Students at al-Azhar, a stronghold of Morsi supporters, have been protesting for weeks against his ouster and a subsequent state crackdown, which this week saw his Muslim Brotherhood group declared a terrorist organization. The Brotherhood dismisses the label and has vowed to keep up its protests against Egypt-military backed authorities.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Higher Education Hossam Eissa said authorities will go after those he said were financing non-peaceful protests on campuses, and accused the Brotherhood of seeking to derail exams.
“The aim of the terrorist Brotherhood group is to call off university exams,” he said according to comments published on the state news agency MENA. “The role of the government is to restore security especially before the referendum on the constitution.”
The government is intensifying its crackdown on Brotherhood and Morsi supporters ahead of a Jan. 14-15 constitutional referendum they see as a milestone in the transition plan. Authorities fear Morsi supporters would seek to derail the key vote, through protests or by violent means.
University professors and security officials accused protesting students on Saturday of blocking entrances to classes and harassing students as they made their way into the campus.
A statement from the Interior Ministry, in charge of the police, said students stormed several buildings on campus to “terrorize students and faculty.” It said some fired shotguns into the air and smashed furniture.
The ministry statement said that the attack prompted the police to move in to disperse the crowd, leading the students to setting the Faculty of Commerce on fire.
Aya Fathy, a student spokeswoman, disputed the officials claim, saying the students were protesting peacefully. She said police moved in to break up protesters outside the faculty building, firing indiscriminately at them, and killing student Khaled el-Haddad.
She accused the police of setting the building on fire to blame the students. She said the police force was chasing students on campus.
Footage from local TV stations and social media websites showed the campus as a battleground. Flames rose from the three-story building, with rooms inside badly torched. Pitched battles pitting police against rock-throwing students, some armed with what appeared to be homemade guns or projectile launchers, left the campus deserted, strewn with rocks and debris.
Other images showed masked protesters on roofs of university buildings lobbing rocks at security, and students jumping out of windows to escape the violence.
Other video showed plainclothes security with sticks grabbing a woman by her veil, kicking her, and manhandling her away.
Exams were postponed at the Faculty of Commerce and other schools on campus. The university dean said the delay will only be for hours. Osama el-Abd, the dean, told Egypt’s state news agency that alternative classrooms will be provided for the students to carry out the exams, and those scheduled Sunday. He said investigation will be launched to determine the students behind Saturday’s violence.
The Interior Ministry didn’t mention el-Haddad’s death in its statement. But a security official confirmed he was killed and said 14 others were injured. He blamed the students for the violence, and said 68 students, including seven female students, were arrested. He said three policemen were injured. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The violence in Al-Azhar university set off protests on a university campus in the Nile Delta city of Zagzig, where students lobbed rocks at police forces.
Following the Brotherhood’s designation as terrorist, officials have warned that anyone joining the group’s protests will face stiff prison sentences.
The designation has coincided with the revival of old tactics used by the security forces, some of which have the potential to spark new kinds of violence. Officials in Egypt’s south sought help from tribes and large clans, who are traditionally heavily armed, to ward off protests by pro-Morsi supporters.
The government accused the Brotherhood of orchestrating a series of attacks by Sinai militants against troops to destabilize the transition— but have provided little evidence to prove the connection. It was the main justification for the authorities labeling the group a terrorist one.
Human Rights Watch said Saturday that the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group was “politically motivated” and would affect the health and education services provided by the group to thousands of beneficiaries.
On Saturday, security officials said they have diffused a homemade explosive device planted on a public transportation bus in northeast Cairo. The officials said the driver discovered the device under a passenger seat. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
The Brotherhood denied it adopts violence. But amid the crackdown and with hundreds killed, the group’s supporters have become increasingly defiant. In a statement late Friday, the group accused security agencies and intelligence of “committing terrorism” to frame their enemies.
Mariam Rizk contributed to this report from Cairo.