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Egyptian students rise up in anger

Young people in Cairo are out for justice after a university student was shot on campus

Tahrir Square, the day after. As people walked quietly to work in the smoggy morning sunshine, there was little sign of what happened the night before. Men in suits sat on the street with cups of tea, while army and police APCs waited nearby in silence, an equally familiar sight in downtown Cairo nowadays.

On Sunday afternoon students, some of them "anti-coup" Muslim Brotherhood supporters, marched from Cairo University to Tahrir Square in protest against Egypt's draconian protest law as well as the killing of student Muhammad Reda on campus last week. A burnt-out police car signposted the march's journey through the heart of the city. Hours later police flooded the square with tear gas, scattering protesters into a hive of downtown streets, where clashes with the police are becoming a weekly event.

The latest unrest is part of a wave of youth anger after the introduction of a protest law – which according to Human Rights Watch "effectively bans protests" in Egypt – as well as the new constitution giving authorities the right to try civilians before military courts. There is a growing sense that the old regime is most definitely back in business.

“At the centre of this story, still, is the stand-off between young people and police"

Reda was shot on Thursday. The Interior Ministry denied using anything but tear gas that day, but a photo appearing to show Muhammad's body with a gunshot wound to the head and a later autopsy report suggested he suffered birdshot pellet injuries to the head, chest and pelvis.

Bola was with Muhammad when he was shot.

"Since Rabaa, they [the police] are used to anti-coup students holding protests, marching and clashing with police. It's a regular thing every week," he said. "This time something strange happened. The police came and closed the campus gates from outside and started firing birdshot at students and tear gas into the campus straightaway. We were terrified, everyone was running." At this point, Muhammad was shot.

Mahmoud Mokhater, engineering student at Cairo University, studied with him. "He was definitely not from the Brotherhood, or linked with any of the other political groups on campus," he said. This has made it more difficult for the government to explain away his death. A series of clashes at Al-Azhar University in east Cairo have seen 12 students landed with 17-year sentences for 'rioting,' while a group of 21 women (some of them minors) were given 11 years each for protesting outside a school in Alexandria. These young people are usually reported as being members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This time, prosecutors have blamed Muslim Brotherhood students for killing Reda. "This is not the reality," Bola claimed. Now the university is collecting student testimonies, videos and photographs so that they can file a claim against the interior ministry after the university's president openly blamed police for the death. 

"Once I found out he was dead, I didn’t believe it." Bola said that that night, more and more students starting called for strikes and protests on social media, the latest surge in a growing anti-government feeling on university campuses around Egypt. "There was an overwhelming feeling of insecurity that night." People are angry.

“Last Tuesday, after police momentarily used a fire hose on protesters, riot police charged on them, arresting dozens"

A few blocks away from Tahrir last night, revolutionary activists were telling reporters about a protest last week outside the Shura Council – again, close to Tahrir. No to Military Trials activists organized the demo to protest against constitutional amendment committee allowing military trials for civilians in post-Morsi Egypt. Last Tuesday, after police momentarily used a fire hose on protesters, riot police charged on them, arresting dozens. Others made their way into downtown are again clashed with police, and were gassed. Twenty-four are still being held, while female activists arrested at the same time were released later that day but driven 40 kilometres into the desert for the privilege. Activists accuse security forces of beating and sexually harassing the detainees.

At last night's presser, activists laid out a list of demands with a five-day ultimatum: sack interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim, release the remaining 24 activists, remove the article on military trials and drop the controversial protest law. That ultimatum ends on the anniversary of the 2012 presidential palace clashes.

The old lines are being drawn again, helped by a series of revolutionary anniversaries which show how Egypt's three-year story of riots, protests and political malaise is far from over. State media has also reported on a purported plan by the International Muslim Brotherhood – supposedly uncovered by intelligence services – to plan for a "third revolution" this January 25. True or not, it means violence is almost guaranteed for the new year.

At the centre of this story, still, is the stand-off between young people and police – however a lack of public support after years of unrest and tough economic circumstances, as well as a combination of pro-army and anti-Brotherhood sentiment, means the ending isn't clear.  

On another march designed to flaunt the refusal to accept the protest law, one protester, sipping away on a coffee in a nearby cafe, admitted activists had been dealt with outside the Shura Council.

"But look at us now," he said, pointing at the hundreds of young men and women passing by on Qasr al-Aini street outside. "They will not enjoy beating us this time," he smiled.