CAIRO (Reuters) - Hundreds of police surround its walls, patrolling in armoured vehicles with sirens blaring, while muscle-bound security guards man metal detectors, searching all who enter.
But this is not a military barracks or police station, it is Cairo University, where the government has tightened security as it seeks to avert another year of unrest on university campuses, among the last bastions of protest and dissent in Egypt.
The government has cracked down on critics since July 2013, when then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected president and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, after mass protests against his rule.
The Brotherhood was banned, thousands of its supporters were locked up and hundreds were killed when police broke up two protest camps last year. The net has since widened to include secular activists who played a leading role in the 2011 uprising that toppled long-serving autocrat Hosni Mubarak and ignited hopes for deeper change.
As the noose tightened around activists and the government banned unlicensed demonstrations, Egypt’s state universities emerged as one of the few remaining spaces to express dissent.
Scores of students were killed last year in clashes with police and hundreds more were detained, leading the government to delay the start of the new academic year to mid-October while it put security procedures in place.
Sisi, now president, has warned that violence at universities would no longer be tolerated. After the long summer hiatus, increased security has come as a relief for many students who had found themselves traversing battlegrounds on their way to class.
But opponents accuse the government of trying to stamp out the last flickers of political expression. They criticise the moves as an attempt to return campuses to the grip of the security services, which ruled by fear under Mubarak.
“(The government) is eliminating politics inside the university and outside it,” said Khaled Reda, a student leader at Zagazig University in the Nile Delta. “The situation inside the university will be even more difficult than it is outside.”
Universities have banned partisan activity on campus, limiting extra-curricular pursuits to sports or culture.
A decree issued in June means appointments to positions including principal or faculty head must be approved by the president himself, an apparent effort to keep politically active academics from attaining senior positions.
Regulations introduced in September at the thousand-year-old Al Azhar University, among the world’s most venerable centres of Islamic learning, give the administration new powers to sack or expel any faculty member or student involved in activities that damage university property, disrupt the learning process or incite violence.
The cabinet has approved similar rules for all universities. Sisi has yet to sign the measures into law, but the plans have drawn criticism from students and professors active across the political spectrum who say they are too vague and leave the door open for principals to remove anyone they find too outspoken.
“It is clear that there is interference from the security services and the target is to suppress academic freedoms under the pretext of combating terrorism,” Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University, told Reuters.
“We are against terrorism... but we are also against exploiting the current political situation and the state of polarisation to restore the (old) regime...”
Student activism has played a key role in Egyptian politics for the last century, fomenting unrest against the British occupation and the ensuing succession of Egyptian leaders hailing from the military, eventually helping topple Mubarak.
Prominent politicians launched their careers as student leaders, including former presidential candidates Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, a moderate Islamist, and leftist Hamdeen Sabahi.
Changes introduced in the aftermath of the 2011 revolt, saw academic staff electing faculty chiefs for the first time.
Under the new law, they must be named or approved by the president, giving top political leaders direct control over what are meant to be independent educational institutions.
Gaber Gad Nassar, president of Cairo University, denied the security measures were intended to restrict academic freedoms.
“There is a state of violence which we had to confront for the sake of protecting the students and the university facilities,” he told Reuters in an interview at his office under the university’s iconic dome.
“In what country is storming the university gates with a Molotov (cocktail) accommodated as academic freedom?”
The presence of security forces inside universities has been a contentious issue for years. Before the 2011 uprising, a special police force was dedicated to universities, crushing protest and monitoring dissent.
A court ruling in 2010, shortly before the Tahrir Square revolt, banned police from entering campuses. But after the spread of violence during the last academic year, the government allowed police to step on site at the request of principals.
Universities have since hired private security firms to patrol on campus, while police scour the perimeters for any signs of trouble among Egypt’s 1.5 million university students.
“We will not deal except with those who try to disturb or terrify students,” police general Medhat el-Menshawi, the head of special operations at interior ministry, told Reuters outside the main gate of Al Azhar on the first day of the academic year.
Protests in the first few days lasted only a few minutes and resulted in the arrest of scores of students, drawing condemnation from human rights groups.
Clashes have since broken out, with police breaking up protests with tear gas, confiscating fireworks and defusing six makeshift bombs inside Mansoura University this week.
A bomb outside Cairo University as students left for the day wounded 11 people on Oct. 22, among them police.
Students who are not politically active or who support the government say they just want the violence to end.
“Last year most students, including me, only came to the university for exams because of the disturbances,” said Mohamed Salah, a medical student at Al Azhar University. “I am not for the university having political activity.”
Activists worry the government could use the unrest as a pretext to interfere in student elections, as it did under Mubarak. Student unions play an important role in Egypt as a training ground for the next generation of political leaders.
Most student unions are currently inactive because so many members have already been detained. A new round of elections, usually held in the start of term, has not yet been announced.
Staff worry that the security net is slowly widening, and will eventually stifle any free expression.
“This is an assault on the independence of universities,” Hani al-Husseini, a mathematics professor at Cairo University, said at a silent faculty protest on the second day of the term.
Editing by Stephen Kalin, Lin Noueihed and Peter Graff