On the menu at Egypt’s most prestigious university: maggots and nails

 Students at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo are furious. They have been protesting against the dismal hygienic conditions at their university after several hundred students fell ill due to food poisoning.


Screen grab from a video denouncing the poor hygienic conditions at Al-Azhar University's cafeterias. The item circled is a nail. 



Students at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo are furious. They have been protesting against the dismal hygienic conditions at their university after several hundred students fell ill due to food poisoning.


On Tuesday and Wednesday, hundreds of students gathered around the offices of the president at the Cairo university to demand his resignation. On Monday, many of their classmates had fallen ill after eating a meal served at a university dormitory. According to a public health official, 479 students were hospitalized.


Egypt’s attorney general has ordered an investigation into this mass food poisoning. Meanwhile Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi visited several victims in the hospital.


Faced with the students’ outrage, the university’s board held an emergency meeting on Wednesday and announced the dismissal of the institution’s president, Oussama al-Abd. He will leave his position once a new university president is elected in mid-April.


Before the scandal broke, students had already been complaining to the administration and had filmed a shocking video of the dismal hygienic conditions in their cafeterias. The students showed meals infested with maggots, nails, bits of wood, and cockroaches.



At 0’27’’, one student explains: “Once, we found several small maggots the size of matchsticks in a stew. Last year we found a piece of metal in a rice dish.” A bit later, the footage shows a nail baked into a piece of bread. And at 2’16”, another student shows his platter, upon which he had found a maggot.


Each year, thousands of students study law, medicine, business, and many other disciplines at Al-Azhar University. It is also one of the biggest centers for the study of Islam, hosting imams from around the world.

"Students were already monitoring meal preparation, but it is difficult to control food-product sourcing"

Massab Amir Djaber is a student at Al-Azhar’s School of Sciences. He is a member of the university’s student union.


On Tuesday, a delegation from our student union showed the footage shot in the cafeteria to members of the Shura Council [the upper house of Egypt’s parliament]. It was filmed about two weeks ago by students in response to the longstanding problem of tainted food in our university, which has been going on for months if not years.


We had submitted complaints to the university administration on March 17 and requested the right to access the kitchen to monitor the preparation of meals. The administration allowed us to create a committee to supervise the cooking, but sadly this measure did not prevent the poisoning of hundreds of our peers. We may be able to monitor meal preparation, but we cannot control food-product sourcing. 


A mass protest by Al-Azhar's students against poor hygienic conditions. 


Cairo’s Nasr neighborhood is home to two dormitories affiliated with the al-Azhar University, Nasr A and Nasr B. The food poisoning occurred in Nasr B. The dormitory’s officials agreed to serve chicken that the Nasr A dormitory had refused to serve because they had found it did not meet hygienic standards.


Since the beginning of the school year – and prior to the mass food poisoning - six students had already been sick after eating the dormitory’s food. But that was not enough to launch a major movement like the one we’re seeing today.


“The president was already audited in a corruption matter linked to the university’s management”


Generally speaking, hygienic conditions on our campus are very poor. The area where the cafeteria platters are supposed to be cleaned is filthy, and our dormitories are dirty as well – so much so that six months ago, one student was infected with tuberculosis.


On Tuesday, we filed a complaint against the university’s president with the country’s Attorney General and we hope that he will be sued, because we believe he bears the brunt of the responsibility for these problems. The Al-Azhar board’s decision to organize elections in two weeks to select a new president is not acceptable to us. We are calling for the immediate dismissal of the current president because if he remains in his role until the election, he will be in a position to help get one of his friends elected. He was already audited by the Shura Council in a corruption matter linked to the university’s management in March. We cannot allow a man with such a poor track record to stay one more minute at the helm of this respected institution, which is why we have decided to file charges.