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Strikes at the American University in Cairo

September 17, 2011

As with everything happening in Egypt these days, one of the most interesting things about the strikes and protests at the American University in Cairo (AUC) is how accessible is data about them. In addition to the press and television news stories, there are Twitter feeds, videos, Facebook pages, Flickr photos, and more .

About two thousand students and workers at the American University in Cairo (AUC) began an open-ended strike Sept. 11. The students are protesting the recent nine percent hike in tuition fees and the workers are protesting continuing low salaries, and lack of contracts. Each group is striking in solidarity with the others.

The protest started in early Sunday morning–Sunday is the beginning of the school week in Egypt, Friday and Saturday being the weekend–with students refusing to pay the usual ten pounds ($1.65) to park their cars inside the university’s campus.

From a US perspective, that doesn’t seem like a lot of money, and it’s not to most of the students who attend AUC. Refusing to pay the parking fees was a symbol of student concerns over rising fees. which have risen to EGP 120,0000 (a little more than USD $20,000). Remember, this is in a country where the mean GDP per person is $6200.

The student demand is that when a student enters the university paying a particular fee, they continue to pay that fee until graduation. Fee hikes would apply only to incoming students.

According to news reports, protesting students stormed classrooms at the new AUC campus in New Cairo, urging all students to unite and ask for their rights, chanting, “Get out,” and, “Why are you silent? Aren’t you a student like us?” They then marched around the campus and stood in front of the administration building that houses the office of AUC President Lisa Anderson, chanting: “Lisa, where did our parents’ money go?” Here’s a video:

Students are also demanding representation on administrative bodies and an end to surveillance of extra-curricular activities, a practice started under a mandate from the Mubarak regime which students say is continuing.

AUC workers held a three-day strike last October but suspended it after the administration promised to meet their demands, including higher wages, job contracts, payment for extra working hours and cessation of the practice of giving the employees meals in lieu of money. Many felt that the administration had not yet fully met these demands, so workers took advantage of the opportunity and joined the students in the strike, in spite of a warning from the administration that they had five days to return to work or face termination.

AUC’s president, Lisa Anderson, met with students’ and workers’ representatives and agreed to have a series of meetings over the next two days with all groups in order to discuss their demands. Anderson asked to meet with small groups of representatives to negotiate key issues; the students demanded an open forum. As this video shows, neither is happy about the results:

Angry at Anderson’s abrupt exit (and the supposed violence against student leaders by her bodyguards), students removed the American flag, claiming Anderson was not livingup to the values of democracy and free speech it stands for. This turned out to be a mistake, as the act was seen as disrespectful by many students, faculty and members of the public. The leaders of the strike issued an official apology via Facebook.

Rumors are flying on Twitter and television. Students denied rumors that one of them had tried to assault Anderson, and the administration denied the rumor that one of the president’s entourage had struck a leader of the student movement. Other students are now claiming that the snipers who fired on Tahrir Square from the top of the AUC bookstore did so with the permission of the university–not very likely, but symbolically powerful claim nonetheless, since it puts the students on the side of the Tahrir uprising and the administration on the regime’s side.

Anderson’s Sept 17 e-mail giving her account of events can be read here.

As interesting as the available social media and news feeds are, what’s more interesting is what’s missing. A central point of the Student Union is that Anderson promised them the whole afternoon but left abruptly, breaking her promise. But no one can find an e-mail or video recording of her making this “promise”. Similarly, in spite of the continual presence of videos and cell phones with vid capacity, there’s no footage of either of the supposed assaults.

And on AUC’s official web page? Nothing. You wouldn’t know there was a strike and that classes and services had ground to a halt.

One of my old friends, a staff member at AUC, wrote me:

This is a big mess. The administration is not handling things well, and the students are not strategizing well and have gone too far. Wisdom and clear-sightedness is lacking on all sides.
That would seem to summarize it thus far,
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