‘I don’t normally cover my face, but I don’t want to be identified,’ the young woman told me last month. A student at al-Azhar University in Cairo, she was wearing a pink hijab and sweatshirt with a mustard-coloured bandana over her face. ‘This is me,’ she said, pulling aside the bandana with a smile. She couldn’t have been more than 20. Many of the other young women around us had wrapped their faces in scarves to conceal their identities from the soldiers and policemen standing nearby.
‘We’re protesting because of what happened yesterday,’ said Sara, a 22-year-old student and member of Students Against the Coup. Ahmed Mamdoh, a business student, had been shot by security forces and was in a critical condition. Police first went onto the university campus to suppress dissent in October. Al-Azhar, the global centre of Sunni learning, is a hub of support for the Muslim Brotherhood, though its grand imam, Ahmed el Tayeb, came out in support of President Morsi’s ouster in July. On 24 November the Egyptian government passed a law banning protests without permission from the Ministry of the Interior. Hundreds of al-Azhar students have been detained, according to the Students’ Union. With the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and hundreds of its male members in jail or in hiding, it seems it is Morsi’s female supporters who are carrying the movement forward.
I asked Sara what her parents thought of her activism. ‘They agree of course and they are with us,’ she said. Were they worried? ‘Not so much, because I am a regular woman like those who are killed. They had mothers like me, my mother says.’
Sara lost her fiancé at the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp on 14 August. Two live rounds were fired into his stomach, she said, and after two weeks in hospital, ‘Allah chose him.’ In his last year at the faculty of translation and language, he was 22 years old.
We were talking in a crush of around 700 young women flashing the four-fingered pro-Morsi hand sign at a cluster of policemen on armed personnel carriers brandishing water hoses. ‘They are making fun of you saying we’re terrorists,’ the protesters chanted. ‘We are neighbours, not terrorists.’
‘Before religion there is humanity,’ one student said. She is not a Muslim Brotherhood supporter but strongly criticised the treatment of the students regardless of their religious or political affiliations. Several people described security forces beating female demonstrators earlier in the day.
But many local residents and business owners are less sympathetic. I asked the owner of a nearby kiosk if he thought the police would disperse the protests soon. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘God willing.’ Young men walked by the gate of the women’s colleges and mocked the protesters, chanting: ‘Sisi, Sisi.’
Many of the students are ambivalent about the protests. ‘At first I said, everyone deserves individual freedom,’ a third-year history student told me. But ‘after weeks when my building was closed every day, I want it to end.’ She said the university security guards had left out of fear of being attacked by protesters who didn’t distinguish between them and the police or army. A guardhouse at one of the entrances, its splintered boards roughly painted black, white and red, the colours of the Egyptian flag, stood empty. Its former occupant had put cardboard on the seat inside to make it more comfortable.
A 20-year-old student in the Turkish department didn’t approve of the protests; she said the campus should be respected as a ‘place of study’. But she’s apprehensive, both about the country’s future – ‘Sisi is fine and everything, but the same things that happened under Mubarak are happening again’ – and her own. She decided to study Turkish after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave a speech in 2012 pledging to invest in development projects in Egypt. But relations between Cairo and Ankara have grown strained since Morsi’s ouster, and she worries that her new language skills may turn out to be less useful than she’d hoped.
The students taking part in the protests, meanwhile, aren’t looking that far ahead. ‘Most students who go out to demonstrate know they may not come home,’ a student at Cairo university told me. The protests at al-Azhar are ongoing. Three more students were killed last weekend.