Academics and Students Look to Influence Egypt's Transition

Mohammed Abed, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

Egyptian antigovernment protesters celebrate outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Friday after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. His departure is seen by activists at universities as an opportunity to improve the quality of higher education, along with achieving other political and social changes.
February 13, 2011

Even as Egyptians marked the collapse of President Hosni Mubarak's government with wild celebrations, professors and students—who played a vital role in the historic uprising—have begun planning for the future. While academics are focusing their expertise on the political-transition process and encouraging the authorities to carry out long-overdue educational reforms, student activists are vowing they will continue to organize and agitate until their demands are met.

Many have suggested that the mass movement that toppled Mr. Mubarak's repressive regime was the inevitable result of the country's demographic pressures. Like most of its neighbors in the Arab world, Egypt is experiencing a "youth bulge": According to the 2006 census, approximately 40 percent of Egyptians fall between the ages of 10 and 29. University enrollment has steadily increased, but the quality of that education has declined, leaving many young Egyptians with high expectations but few marketable skills.

"Egypt's academic standards have been slipping continuously," says Said Sadek, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. "The quality of education is getting very bad. Young people aren't finding work; the government tells them it's because of their poor education. So they ask, Why don't you give us a better education? It's a chicken-and-egg argument."

At the same time, corruption and nepotism have stifled innovation and entrepreneurship, leading many young Egyptians to consider emigration as their best option. A survey carried out last year by the Population Council, an international nongovernmental organization, found that the unemployment rate is 19 percent among Egyptians ages 18 to 24. The same survey showed that graduates of universities and secondary vocational schools make up 25 and 48 percent, respectively, of the unemployed.

"The government does not spend enough on education," says Mr. Sadek. "The budget of the Interior Ministry is triple that of the Health and Education Ministries combined. The priority was the stick," he said, referring to the Mubarak government's security apparatus. "They had no social and economic policies to deal with the problems of the youth."

Economic inequalities and the lack of opportunities have certainly been among the complaints of demonstrators. But even affluent young Egyptians with plenty of options joined the protests. "This revolution included all classes; it was about dignity, not about poverty," says Mr. Sadek. And it was sparked as much by cultural shifts—access to new media, a different attitude toward authority—as it was by particular economic grievances.

The leaders who coordinated the protests online were for the most part college-educated young people in their late 20s and early 30s. Wael Ghonim, the administrator of a half-a-million-strong Facebook group that was instrumental in planning the protests, is a Google executive who was born in Egypt and lives in Dubai.

Mr. Ghonim and other like him are being celebrated today as the country's "Facebook kids"­—a middle-class, educated, politicized, and Internet-savvy generation that has taken many of its elders by surprise.

Academic Activism

Although young people and university students turned out in huge numbers, the protests didn't originate on university campuses, says Khuloud Saber, a student at Cairo University and an advocate for the freedom of expression and assembly of faculty and students.

That's because Egypt's national universities have been tightly controlled by the state and its security apparatus for decades now. "Student unions are very corrupted and controlled by the administration and by security," says Ms. Saber. For many years, students who have wanted to have some form of representation both on campus and in society at large have had to find "other channels to work through," she adds.

Those other channels included underground groups, such as the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist group, and the April 6 Movement, a progressive group established online three years ago to support labor strikes. These groups have a strong presence on Egyptian campuses and played a major role in planning the protests.

Many academics also lent their support to the protests. Madiha Doss, who teaches linguistics at Cairo University, is one of the founding members of the March 9 Movement, a group formed in 2003 to protest the heavy-handed presence of security forces on Egyptian campuses and their constant interference in academic life.

Ms. Doss's group joined the calls for a "Day of Rage" on January 25, when tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets, launching the protests that continued for nearly three weeks afterward. But she says she didn't believe anything would come of it. "In our wildest dreams, we didn't think this would happen."

After that, Ms. Doss attended the protests every day in the company of many colleagues. On two occasions, she helped coordinate marches by thousands of Egyptian professors.

The Egyptian authorities closed universities here on January 26, postponing some exams. They are scheduled to reopen on February 20. The authorities have been in a bind, says Ms. Doss, fearful that keeping the universities closed will add to the unrest, and also fearful that as soon as they reopen, "we'll gather and start politics."

Which is, in fact, exactly what professors and students here are planning to do. They hope that the end of the Mubarak administration will usher in a new era of freedom and accountability on university campuses.

Until now, all student and faculty elections have been "fixed," says Ms. Doss. Only candidates approved by the now-former president's ruling party and vetted by his security services were allowed to win. The same was true for faculty appointments and promotions. Decision making was highly centralized and not transparent. "Some professors are part of the problem," says Ms. Doss. "There's corruption. People get away with what they can."

Hany El-Husseini, another Cairo University professor and member of the March 9 group, says that after 60 years of authoritarian regimes, he and his colleagues "have been trying to reconstruct society; to re-establish professional ties; to rehabilitate volunteerism."

"Our work will be more important after the revolution," he says.

Looking to the Future

The protesters who filled Egypt's streets were clamoring not just for Mr. Mubarak's resignation but for a list of long-waited political reforms, including the lifting of emergency law—which curtails freedom of assembly and expression and allows arbitrary detentions—and the drafting of a new constitution that ensures free and fair elections.

Last week, officials of the Mubarak government met with experts, including several academics, to discuss the demands of the opposition and the possibility of legal and political reforms. But those negotiations fell apart as the government did. The new—and supposedly temporary—military leadership of the country has not yet begun a new round of consultations.

On February 13, the army announced it had suspended the much-criticized constitution. Some professors haven't waited to hear from the armed forces to put their expertise at the service of change.

Amr Shalakany is an associate professor of law at the American University in Cairo. The day after President Mubarak stepped down, he was on his way to a meeting with fellow jurists and academics to discuss the process by which the country should move toward democracy. "What I would like to see is not amendments to the current constitution," says Mr. Shalakany. "The constitution was toppled along with the regime. We should be headed toward drafting a completely new constitution."

That process, Mr. Shalakany, estimates, will take at least six months. First the authorities need to "guarantee the freedom to organize parties and lift emergency law so that people can start talking to each other. We want a new political culture, an opening of the political space." A committee of experts can then draft a constitution that will be submitted to a newly elected assembly and voted upon in a general referendum.

Meanwhile, says Mr. Shalakany, "As a university professor, you need to get the students much more active and involved." In the coming weeks and months, he argues, "the contribution that everyone has to make is to remain critical and vigilant."

The young activists who planned the protests couldn't agree more. They say they are celebrating their victory but by no means resting on their laurels.

Mahmoud Samy, a recent graduate of Ain Shams University and a member of the April 6 group, says that when universities reopen next week, students will demand that the law governing university affairs be abolished and that new student-union elections be held. "We want to be able to express ourselves freely, with no fear of punishment," says Mr. Samy. "And we want reforms so that education is connected to the demands of the labor market."

A New Scientific Age?

The name of Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-American professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology and a Nobel Prize winner, was on the lips of many protesters. Mr. Zewail is respected here both for his accomplishments and his criticism of the Mubarak regime. He has spoken urgently of the need for educational reform. In a column in the International Herald Tribune last week, he wrote that "the education system, which is central to every Egyptian household's hopes of progress, has deteriorated into a sad state that is far below Egypt's standing in the world."

Mr. Zewail returned to Egypt last week and may well be given the task of negotiating on the part of the protesters, or of advising the government on the reform process.

Others are working to support Egypt's development from afar. Farouq El-Baz is a renowned Egyptian-American geologist, NASA consultant, and director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University. He left Egypt over 30 years ago when the Ministry of Higher Education here assigned him to teach chemistry rather than his subject, geology. (He says he spent three months visiting the minister's office every day, hoping to get an explanation for his assignment, but the minister never agreed to see him).

In recent years, Mr. El-Baz was approached by the Egyptian government to help improve scientific research in the country. But the meetings he attended, he says, were not promising— "just government talking to government." Now that the top-down political culture of the Mubarak regime has been discredited, he hopes a new generation of young scientists and policy makers will be able to make real changes.

"The expertise exists; the good people exist," he says. "But they were put in a situation where they could not think aloud or even generate ideas on their own. The were suffocated. They were being taught [by government officials] to shut up and follow our scheme. And the scheme was: Don't rock the boat. Now they will have the courage to say, This institution is going the wrong way, and we need to change it."

Meanwhile, Mr. El-Baz says he and other academics in the Egyptian diaspora are in constant communication with colleagues in Egypt. "We are all thinking: Now there will be a whole new Egypt," he says. "What can we do? Shall we go back, or shall we try to help people there?"

Mr. El-Baz believes the first priority is to bring more Egyptian scientists to world-class institutions for training and upgrading. Emigré scientists should return to their home country only when "there are the conditions that allow them to excel there," he says.

Those conditions, says Mr. El-Baz, would include the government's making research a priority, the society's respecting and valuing scientists and their work, the availability of public- and private-sector funds for research, and a recognition by scientists themselves that they must be able to sell their ideas and take the initiative in finding research money.

Mr. El-Baz will visit Egypt next month. But ultimately, he says, he doesn't expect or desire a leading role in this revolution. "It was my generation that resulted in the mess we're in," he says. "We acquiesced. We accepted the status quo. The young generation will speak their minds and do something different. I knew it was coming, but I didn't think I'd live to see it. Now I'm delighted."


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