Egypt: small oases of transformation

The new Heliopolis university in Cairo has developed from SEKEM principles and is devoted entirely to sustainable development. Scilla Elworthy reports on the challenges of setting the pace of social innovation in education

Scilla Elworthy
15 April 2013

On land that 30 years ago was nothing but desert, you can now walk through acres and acres of lush lucerne, knee-deep camomile, and the tall golden spikes of evening primrose. This is SEKEM, the organic farm 60 km north east of Cairo pioneered by Dr Ibrahim Abouleish, who went as a young Egyptian to study pharmacology in Austria and then introduced the concepts of Goethe and of Rudolf Steiner to Egypt. The encounter of east and west merged in a new concept of sustainable community in the Egyptian desert.

In the midst of this oasis, there’s a massive processing plant where they produce phyto-pharmaceuticals, prepare hundreds of tons of organic vegetables for export, and train seven hundred farmers in bio-dynamics. Each morning the employees gather in groups of about 100 and after a short prayer, each person says what they’re going to do today – an eclectic mix of German precision and Egyptian insouciance. It baffles visitors but it works.

It takes almost an hour to get to Heliopolis, the university in Cairo that has developed from SEKEM principles and - as far as I know - is the only one in the global South devoted entirely to sustainable development.  To get there we drive through miles of desolation – abandoned attempts to tame the desert, mountains of plastic garbage everywhere, perilous half built apartment blocks that the desperately poor have already moved into.

When you arrive at Heliopolis University, right near the airport, you discover another oasis, albeit urban this time. Casuarina trees surround the buildings - trees that manage with almost no water to hold the soil in sandstorms - and in the centre a botanical garden with herbs planted according to their properties, by a full time efficient volunteer German herbalist. Vast airy buildings in colours of biscuit and peach, original local paintings on the walls, and an excellent café allow you to forget the smog for a while.

The challenge for this university is whether it can become much more than a conventional course delivery factory, and instead pioneer in higher education what the SEKEM social enterprise has done so brilliantly in agriculture, winning awards & accolades worldwide.

- Can it build real community?

- Can it model, live, the values that will enable human beings to survive, and thrive, in the 21st century?

- Can it set the pace of social innovation in education; for example, can degrees in engineering, business and pharmacy embody sustainable development?

As with all attempts at social transformation in this bumpy age we are going through, Heliopolis has its internal tensions. My undertaking was to deliver a 3-day course to provide the leadership and teaching staff with the personal and interpersonal skills to engage with the challenges facing a new university, as well as to catalyse positive social change with the young people of Egypt. My starting point – which I share with the founder Dr Abouleish - is that the key to transformation lies in realising that change starts with us, and within us. It is only by becoming the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhi said, that we can actually affect what happens in the world at a deep level.

We know from experience that if the ‘inner’ issues in any enterprise are not addressed, the outer ‘results’ can be severely compromised. Energy can drain away in misunderstandings, tensions and feuds. The course therefore started with the personal and more internal issues, progressing via team building work to addressing the challenges currently facing Egypt.

The economy is dangerously close to collapsing. Political uncertainties generated by the uprising, the continuing street violence and the elusive national consensus have combined to worsen Egypt’s economic and financial situation. Tourism has fallen sharply, foreign direct investment has shied away, Egyptian domestic capital has fled, and the central bank has begun to run out of usable reserves. The economy is now teetering on the brink of disaster. Foreign currency reserves dropped from $36 billion to below $14 billion. Manufacturing industries in need of hard currency encounter harsh restrictions, fuel shortages are common, and the number of people living on less than $2 per day has risen substantially. Each day en route to the university we passed kilometre-long queues of motorists waiting for petrol; the grid-lock of Cairo traffic and almost total absence of workable public transport render logistics a nightmare; and corruption and cronyism has far from disappeared.

By contrast the knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment of the university teaching staff, particularly the younger female faculty members, was remarkable. We were able to cover complex personal topics, including the various methodologies for self-awareness, and the concept of projection - an ego defence mechanism when our thoughts, impulses and feelings are projected onto another person or peoples.

When it came to team building work, we examined how a short meditation practice can be an effective way to start the day and connect with a young team. We worked out how to build a safe container for their work, cultivating an atmosphere of trust where colleagues can rely on one another. We tackled the challenge of balancing masculine and feminine qualities in each person, whether male or female, which they tackled with considerably less embarrassment and more clarity than similar groups in the UK.

Then it was time to address the challenges currently facing Egypt, and examine how we can harness the energy of conflict, and use it to transform a chaotic situation. We used live examples that produced a lot of laughing – a welcome relief from the intensity of the current situation. I told them how the world had applauded the posters that had gone up in Tahrir square shortly after Mubarak had been ousted, saying “Come back Mubarak, we didn’t mean it.”

Lastly we investigated the problems raised by the new Social Innovation Centre at Heliopolis – and how difficult it is for some of the older faculty to really buy in to social innovation.  The under thirty fives swept us through with their commitment to community building, both in Heliopolis University and in their new ventures in the desert.

We ended with all kinds of poetry about leadership as service. What they loved most comes from the words of Hafez, who profoundly influenced Goethe, as well as most post-fourteenth century Persian writing:

…Now is the time for the world to know

That every thought and action is sacred.

This is the time

For you to deeply compute the impossibility

That there is anything

But Grace.

Now is the season to know

That everything you do

Is sacred.”

 (Hafiz, from The Gift by Daniel Ladinsky)

Notwithstanding the vast challenges facing Egypt, Heliopolis University has a good chance of becoming an oasis of social entrepreneurship as inspiring and effective as its parent, SEKEM.


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