Cairo University’s Moment in the Sun

On Thursday, the U.S. president hopes to send a message to the Arab world. The site of his address -- Egypt's premier public university -- plans to send one too.

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty ImagesHousekeeping: A worker by Cairo University's famed dome cleans a lamp in preparation for the U.S. president's visit.

Egypt's largest public university is busy sprucing up for what might be the world's worst-kept secret: On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama will give his first speech in the Arab world from the campus of Cairo University in Giza, Egypt.

As of last week, the venue had not been formally announced, and U.S. officials coyly responded no comment when asked about it. But preparations are clearly in full swing, and Egypt's capital simmers with excitement and anticipation. On a recent day, teenage workers in plastic sandals measured the front of the university's main building with giant measuring tapes coiled around their shoulders like snakes. High above them, half a dozen others grappled down the sides of the building's dome and polished it with rags and buckets of water.

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty ImagesHousekeeping: A worker by Cairo University’s famed dome cleans a lamp in preparation for the U.S. president’s visit.

Egypt’s largest public university is busy sprucing up for what might be the world’s worst-kept secret: On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama will give his first speech in the Arab world from the campus of Cairo University in Giza, Egypt.

As of last week, the venue had not been formally announced, and U.S. officials coyly responded no comment when asked about it. But preparations are clearly in full swing, and Egypt’s capital simmers with excitement and anticipation. On a recent day, teenage workers in plastic sandals measured the front of the university’s main building with giant measuring tapes coiled around their shoulders like snakes. High above them, half a dozen others grappled down the sides of the building’s dome and polished it with rags and buckets of water.

Security guards and soldiers dot the campus — though apparently no one told them to keep quiet. One plainclothes officer in acid-washed jeans interrogated a foreigner: You with the embassy or with the White House?

With the press, the visitor answered. An officer quickly escorted him off the premises.

Indeed, from ensuring the campus looks its best to keeping a close eye on pesky journalists, Cairo University is honing its image for Thursday’s broadcast — just as Obama is doing the same. The Giza institution endeavors to show the world its best face: accommodating, urbane, secular, and intelligent. But what lies beneath the campus prepared for telecast?

To understand Cairo University and why Obama picked it for his banner first address, it is vital to understand the alternatives, and why he discarded them.

The usual venue for U.S. diplomats is the American University in Cairo (AUC), where such dignitaries as former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have appeared in recent years. But the school straddles the American and Egyptian worlds — it was founded by Evangelical missionaries and teaches classes in English to a decidedly upscale student body. It’s not an ideal place to reach out to a broad spectrum of Egyptians, Arabs, and Muslims (and in any case, AUC has just moved from its old downtown Cairo location to a somewhat remote new campus in the desert).

In early May, the Associated Press reported that Egyptian officials hoped Obama would speak at al-Azhar Mosque, a cherished 1,000-year-old monument in this chaotic city of 18 million. It is connected to al-Azhar University, a state-affiliated seat of Sunni learning that claims to be the oldest university in the world (the university is now cohosting Obama’s address).

Objections raised by Egyptian human rights activists might have given the White House pause. Gamal Eid, director of the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, explains that Azhar originated a recent series of fatwas, or religious edicts, that accused striking workers of being un-Islamic. The mosque has also confiscated and banned 24 books in the last year, including titles such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, and Eva Luna, by Isabel Allende.

We cautioned [Obama’s] advisors against speaking at al-Azhar as well, says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a democracy activist. An outspoken critic of the Hosni Mubarak regime who lives in exile (at the age of 71, he was sentenced to two years of hard labor), Ibrahim has long lobbied for bringing Obama to Egypt — but only to secular and independent institutions such as the new Library of Alexandria. We [want] the issue of secular civil society highlighted, he explains.

Cairo University, though, is an entirely Egyptian and entirely secular institution. With a student body of about 200,000 countrywide, it serves as a microcosm of the reigning influences and tensions that characterize contemporary Egypt: Islamism and secularism, anticolonialism and the countervailing aspiration to Westernize, democracy and authoritarianism.

Established in 1908 as the Egyptian University, the was founded as nothing less than an act of resistance against British colonial occupation, says Leila Soueif, a mathematics professor who has been on campus since her freshman year in 1973.

It was a rejection of Lord Cromer’s whole idea of educating the Egyptian, she says, referring to the British consul general to Egypt at the turn of the 20th century. [We] basically said, ‘We can have our own universities, and not just schools that educate people to be clerks and secretaries in colonial administrators’ offices.’

Since then, it has educated many of Egypt’s best and brightest, from scientists and writers to parliamentarians and anti-Mubarak activists.

It became a public institution in 1928, when King Fuad I took it under his care and gave it his name. The 1952 revolution swept away the monarchy, and the school finally became Cairo University. Enrollment climbed steeply after President Gamal Abdel Nasser promised a university education to every Egyptian who wanted one.

It was a noble impulse, but like so many of Nasser’s initiatives, the follow-through was lacking. Little money was invested in teacher training, and with so many students the quality of education deteriorated, says Joel Beinin, a historian of modern Egypt at Stanford University. To make matters worse, he says, the Nasser regime kept a close watch on the universities to make sure there was nothing too critical of the government happening on campus.

That has continued to this day, Soueif says. Egypt’s feared State Security service remains a powerful force in university life. Junior faculty appointments must be approved by the security forces, as well as applications for dorm rooms. State officials appoint the deans, vice presidents, and president. Political troublemakers and especially Islamists, no matter how academically qualified, rarely earn a dorm room, let alone a lectureship.

University officials always bend over backwards to accommodate State Security because they know that these people are their path to more power, says Soueif, who is part of a faculty group, the March 9 Movement, that pushes for academic freedom. (The group is named for the date that Taha Hussein, an influential modernist writer and former university president, resigned over attempts by the monarchy to exert greater control over the school.)

Deans are appointed, not elected, and every dean wants to someday become vice president of the university, she says. And every vice president someday wants to become university president. And the university president always wants to become the minister of education.

There is a tradition of resistance to autocracy at Cairo University that goes back pretty far, says Beinin, referring to Hussein’s resignation. But there is also unfortunately a tradition that autocracy wins.

Another political stream also runs deep: Islamism. For instance, Cairo University is where the politician, historian, doctor, and polarizing political figure Essam el-Erian, as he put it in an interview, got his start in Islamist organizing. Erian attended the university as an undergraduate in the late 1970s. He matriculated to the medical school, but was thrown in jail before graduation for joining the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s banned-but-sometimes-tolerated Islamist organization, before he could finish his degree (he went back in 1992, this time to the law school, but landed in prison again in 1995).

Cairo University has been very important to my life, he says. He adds proudly, You know, I was a big figure at school because I was in charge of all Islamic activities.

Soueif was also a student activist, though a leftist, and remembers the Islamists’ rapid growth during her undergraduate years. She says the university, and the regime of then President Anwar el-Sadat, encouraged the growth of Islamist groups because they were seen as the best way to get rid of all those socialists, communists, and Nasserists.

It was easier for Islamist students to get permits for meetings and events, she says, and they were encouraged to run for the student union. When some Islamist students complained that it was un-Islamic to have concerts on campus, the university agreed to ban them.

By 1977 the rise of the Islamists had really begun in earnest, she says, noting that the Muslim Brotherhood had been popular in Egypt for some time. But their domination of student politics at the universities, I do think that happened very fast.

Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University and expert on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, says that a similar pattern played out in public universities across Egypt in the late 1970s. Young Brotherhood members learned how to organize themselves and behave as a political party, even though they were banned, he says. They learned how to campaign, to make budgets, and to attract and maintain followers, Stacher says. That 1970s generation went on to replicate these models in national syndicates, in local community organizing, and in races for parliament.

Those are lessons that Erian learned well. Released again from prison in 2000, he became active in the Doctors’ Syndicate — Egypt’s version of the American Medical Association — and now serves as its secretary-general. He’s a forceful speaker for a set of reforms that are strange bedfellows for many in the West but have become standard Brotherhood demands: democracy and Islamic law.

Erian fondly remembers his days as a young man at Cairo University. It was such a great school then, and we were so free to get involved in all kinds of social and political activities, he sighs. I wish Barack Obama could have come to my university 40 years ago. But you know, I don’t think he was even born back then.

Liam Stack is a freelance journalist based in New York and Cairo.

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