A new window for academic freedom in Egypt

The end of Mubarak’s thirty years reign may mark an opportunity to revive the Egyptian universities’ founding ideals as autonomous institutions seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
Florian Kohstall
14 March 2011

Public universities in Egypt were still closed when the wind of change hit the country’s campuses. Cairo University announced that it would banish state security forces, replacing them with civil guards. The interim Minister for Education and Higher Education, Ahmad Gamal Eddin Moussa, proclaimed the dissolution of student committees elected during the old regime. There is even talk of renaming lecture halls named after members of the Mubarak family.   

In Egypt, public universities have always been a security issue for the regime. With over 2,5 million students, most of them concentrated in only 18 public universities, campuses have the size of medium-scale cities. Students and professors are more politicized than the rest of the population. Since the 1970s, when mass-education began to reshape the university landscape, campuses have been a battleground for marxist, liberal and islamist groups. Indeed, it was on campuses that those factions would fight out arguments for which there was no space in the official political arena being monopolized by a one-party system. Following the crackdown of security forces on political activists in the 1980s and 1990s, their attention turned away from internal political issues to the foreign intervention in Iraq or to Palestine. It was only recently that a government scheme to reform the higher education system, the so-called Higher Education Enhancement Program, triggered debates on higher-education-related issues, such as autonomy, the promotion system of professors and external evaluation. This protest culminated in the so-called 9th-of-March-movement, founded by a handful of professors in 2004 in remembrance of 9th March 1932, when Lotfi El Sayed resigned from his post as president of Cairo University in protest against government interference in the governance of the then largely independent university.     

The end of Mubarak’s thirty years reign may mark an opportunity to revive the Egyptian universities’ founding ideals as autonomous institutions seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The protest that started at Tahrir Square has yet to spill over into publishing houses, factories and banks. In order to prevent it from reaching the campuses, university presidents have followed Bismarck’s recipe of preemptively engaging in reform before events might cost them their jobs. In a tentative step to distance itself from the old regime, Cairo University announced that it will no longer host the office of the Future Generation Foundation, chaired by the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak. The Supreme Council of Universities, formed by university presidents, embraced the Minister’s decision to dissolve student committees and replace the state security forces on campuses with civil guards. Already in November 2010, an administrative court had ruled against the presence of security forces on campuses, but during Mubarak’s rule nobody felt responsible to enforce the ruling. 


Cairo University. Wikimedia commons.

For a long time Egypt’s higher education system evolved in the shadow of Mubarak’s reign, being a mirror of his authoritarian regime. Since 1994, university presidents and deans have been directly selected by the Minister. In 2007, Mubarak issued a bylaw that gave university administrative bodies the right to bar students from running in university elections. The law “legalized” a longstanding practice of limiting students’ freedom of expression on campus. Various reports, such as the 2003 Arab Human Development Report, have linked the poor performance of Egyptian academia to the authoritarian setting in which it operated. Bureaucratic hurdles, interference of state security and direct and indirect censorship are the order of the day and hinder scientific development. But any reform aimed at tackling the crisis of higher education has neglected the question of university autonomy. The creation of the National Agency for Quality Assurance and Evaluation is one of many unbalanced attempts to adapt higher education to the requirements of internationalization: with the support of the World Bank and other international donor agencies, the Ministry for Higher Education tried to reform the system without granting the faculty members more freedom.

Higher education policy stood at the forefront of a neoliberal reform agenda pursued by Mubarak and his allies. Nobody expected that these policies would one day turn against the regime. Instead of reforming the country’s public universities, the government authorized the creation of private universities on Cairo’s outskirts. These institutions were meant to provide educational services to the country’s growing middle classes, a population unwilling to stand the crowd of the downtown campuses. But on 25th January 2011, it was precisely these well-educated and privileged youths that demanded the overthrow of its former champions: the vanguard of the protesters were undergraduates of these private universities which had been built in the desert in an attempt to move student protests out of Cairo’s city center.

Transition in Egypt is still full of uncertainties, and so is transition in Egyptian higher education. Students of some private universities have already returned to their campuses where they started to set up committees and commissions imitating those in Tahrir Square. Organizing themselves, students now carry the spirit of the revolution into the universities. University presidents already begin to react, by granting new freedoms or re-inventing themselves as champions of the revolution. One private university has turned the revolution into an academic subject to be taught in class. Another university has given access to websites which have so far been blocked in its computer labs. Some faculty members and their organizations, such as the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, want to go further. They demand that all bylaws introduced by the old regime be scrapped, and that presidents and deans nominated by the old regime be replaced. If the revolution stays on course, they might be successful: on 3rd March the governing Supreme Council of the Armed Forces nominated a new Prime Minister to replace Mubarak’s last cabinet: Essam Sharaf, a former minister of transportation who resigned in protest against corruption is widely accepted by the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Having resumed his career as an academic after his resignation instead of accepting a lucrative position in the industry, he is widely seen as a person of integrity, capable of conducting the transition.

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