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IV. Background

Egypt has long been the intellectual and cultural center of the Arab world. It is home to al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world, and was among the first Arab countries to establish a national secular university, almost a century ago. The latter, which became Cairo University, not only served as a model for other institutions in the region but also provided Egypt with scholars, political leaders, and opposition figures. Over the course of the twentieth century, Egypt’s rapidly expanding university system faced periodic violations of academic freedom. In recent years, those attacks have become sometimes less obvious but more pervasive, threatening the freedom of individual academics and the autonomy of educational institutions in unprecedented ways. Whether Egypt’s universities can continue to serve as intellectual role models for the region is seriously in doubt.

Rise of the National Universities

Egypt’s intellectual leadership began with the founding of al-Azhar. Shi`a Fatimids established the religious university in Cairo in the tenth century; about two hundred years later, the Ayyubids under Saladin turned it into a Sunni institution. As Egypt became “the undisputed center of Islamic cultural and intellectual life,”54 students from across the Arab world came to al-Azhar to pursue Islamic studies. The formation of the Ottoman Empire eventually shifted political and cultural power to Istanbul,55 but al-Azhar remained (and remains) a significant force in the Islamic world, contributing to the resistance against Napoleon and providing religious leaders for the region.56

At the end of the nineteenth century, as part of a broad reform movement, the search began in Egypt for an alternative to al-Azhar’s religious education. It was found wanting in its preparation of young Egyptians to meet the demands of the modern age. France and England had turned away from their traditionally Christian universities and either created new institutions or revamped and secularized the old ones.57 Inspired to modernize their own society, Egyptian politicians, aristocrats, and intellectuals started discussing options for forming a secular university in Cairo.

The minarets of al-Azhar tower over medieval Cairo.  Founded in the tenth century,
al-Azhar is the oldest university in Egypt and one of the oldest in the world. 
It continues to serve as a pan-Arab center for Sunni education. 
© 2003 Bonnie Docherty / Human Rights Watch

The Egyptian University, later renamed Cairo University, opened in 1908. It was created as a private, liberal arts college that sought “knowledge for its own sake.”58 A university committee policy statement explained, “The firm foundations on which this great structure [of higher education] will be built can only be the introduction of the fields of knowledge which are now neglected in Egypt, like history, the arts, the humanities, and the higher sciences which elevate the individual and his people and make a nation great among nations.”59 Research was an important part of Cairo University’s mission. As one young professor explained, instead of merely presenting knowledge, “the university tries to discover the unknown, criticizes the achievements in learning, introduces arguments, replaces the old by the new, destroys one viewpoint and builds up another.”60 These early mission statements provide an important point of contrast to the state of education in Egypt today.

The university’s founders also recognized the need for autonomy. They sought to keep politics off campus and avoided hiring graduates of al-Azhar. They intended to have “no religion but knowledge.”61 European professors dominated the first generation of faculty while promising Egyptian students were sent abroad to train for future teaching positions.

In 1925, three years after Egypt gained independence from Britain, the private university became part of the country’s first state university. The original institution had insufficient funds and facilities to meet the growing demand for higher education. It was turned into a Faculty of Arts in an expanded institution that added a Faculty of Science and schools of law and medicine. As a condition of accepting reorganization, however, the private university demanded “as much autonomy from the minister of education as possible.”62 The new university symbolically distinguished itself from al-Azhar, building its Western-style campus on the opposite bank of the Nile. A clock tower, rather than a minaret, dominated the campus. Although founded on a European model, the state university served as an important symbol of an independent Egypt, even appearing on national postage stamps.

Over the coming decades, Cairo University, then known as Fuad I University after the king and former rector, could no longer meet Egypt’s needs for higher education. A second national university opened in October 1942. Originally named Faruq I University, it ultimately became Alexandria University. It followed Cairo’s model, but made college education more accessible to Egyptians outside Cairo. Eight years later, the state added Ibrahim Pasha University, now `Ain Shams, to its system. It was built in Cairo on the east bank of the Nile. By 1952, enrollments at the three state universities totaled 36,622.

After the fall of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, the state popularized the national universities. Gamal Abd al-Nasser63 believed education should be open to the people and made universities free in July 1962. The result was an explosion in the number of students. During his years as president, Cairo University’s student population grew two-and-a-half times, to 50,000. Nasser also shifted the emphasis of the national universities from liberal arts to science and technology and opened several institutes that provided more vocational training. Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser in 1970, rejected his predecessor’s economic views but generally continued his educational policies. The government continued to provide free access to the universities despite the fact that the emphasis on quantity of students led to a decline in quality of education. Expansion included the creation of Hilwan University, another institution in the Cairo area.

Over the past fifty years, the national university system has grown dramatically. Today it consists of twelve universities, spread geographically from Alexandria in the northwest to Suez Canal in Isma`ilia in the east to South Valley in Qina in the south. Branch campuses extend as far south as Aswan. According to the most recent available statistics, more than 1.1 million students are enrolled and about 200,000 graduate each year.64 In 1999-2000, 120,000 graduate students attended the national universities,65 and the number of faculty members reached 30,486.66 The system also includes a number of technical and higher institutes that provide vocational training in two to four years of study. The founders of Cairo University might be pleased that Egypt has a firmly established university system, but as this report will show, they would likely question the direction it has taken.

The American University in Cairo (AUC)

Shortly after the creation of the Egyptian University, a group of American missionaries founded the American University in Cairo (AUC). It began as a secondary school in 1920. In 1928, AUC graduated its first university class and enrolled its first female student. The school was modeled on other missionary schools in the Middle East, including the Syrian Protestant College, which later became the American University of Beirut. AUC, which moved into the Egyptian University’s original home in Tahrir Square, offered an American-style liberal arts education in English. It added master’s degrees in 1950.67

The school started small, but its influence grew as the United States became a world leader. In 1945, it enrolled 134 students, compared to Cairo University’s 10,534. Statistics from around the same time show its student body consisted of forty-eight percent Christian, twenty-two percent Jewish, and thirty percent Muslim. After World War II, AUC became a more important player in Egyptian society. By the 1960s Muslim students outnumbered Christians. The school’s graduates included Nasser’s daughter and Hosni Mubarak’s wife.

Located at the edge of Tahrir Square,
this building houses the administration of the American University in Cairo. 
It served as the original home of Cairo University when it was founded in 1908. 
© 2003 Bonnie Docherty / Human Rights Watch

AUC is now the most elite university in Egypt. In fall 2003, it enrolled 3,963 undergraduates and 867 master’s students. Of those, 89.3 percent were Egyptians.68 Although more integrated than previously into Egyptian society, it maintains its commitment to “the ideals of American liberal arts and professional education.”69 Its mission statement says, “As freedom of academic expression is fundamental to this effort, AUC encourages the free exchange of ideas and promotes open and on-going interaction with scholarly institutions throughout Egypt and other parts of the world.”70 AUC represents an alternative to Egypt’s public university system. It provides a university education that is liberal arts-based, private, and international to students willing and able to pay tuition.71

Influence of Egyptian Universities

Egypt’s secular universities began to influence politics and society shortly after their creation. During much of the twentieth century, they trained national leaders and provided forums for challenging that leadership. They also served as models for the new institutions of higher education springing up around the Arab world. The significance of these universities thus extended beyond their role as educators of Egyptian youth to shapers of Egyptian and Arab society.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Cairo University produced most of Egypt’s professionals, politicians, and intellectuals. Its first rector later became King Fuad I, who reigned from 1917 to 1936. Between 1908 and 1952 almost all cabinet ministers who were not army officers graduated from the university. In addition to grooming the country’s leaders, Cairo University was a national symbol at a time when Egypt was seeking its independence from Britain. “In France, with its prestigious grandes écoles, the University of Paris has not been nearly so vital for national life, nor has Harvard in the decentralized United States. . . . Oxford and Cambridge revived later in the [nineteenth] century, but they were still far less important on the national scene than Cairo University has been in Egypt,” writes historian Donald Reid.72 Later in the century, Cairo University had to share its influence with new members of the state system. It also lost control of the national leadership; all three of Egypt’s presidents since 1954 graduated from the Military Academy. While Cairo University’s influence has diminished, it remains the most prestigious state university.

Historically Egypt’s universities trained not only society’s leaders, but also citizens willing to challenge the status quo. “Students from Cairo University . . . were in the forefront of demonstrations in 1919, 1935, 1946, 1951, 1968, and 1972-73 which significantly affected the course of Egypt’s history,” Reid writes.73 These demonstrations usually criticized government policies, with students often focusing on what they considered the state’s insufficiently militant policy toward Israel. The student movement peaked in the 1970s when leftists “fought against big government.”74 In 1972, for example, more than three thousand students organized a sit-in at Cairo University to protest Israel’s continued occupation of the Sinai Peninsula and to expose domestic problems. They printed leaflets, arranged for food and medicine to be distributed, and guarded the gates. “It was very organized. Egypt’s intellectuals joined. It showed at the time students were a strong and organized force. [The movement] began to decline in the next couple years,” said `Imad Mubarak, a recent graduate and student activist, who now works at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, named after his father.75 Engineering professor Saad el-Raghy remembers that the students in his faculty, who were “fed up” with Israel’s presence in the Sinai Peninsula, threw stones and protested for hours. “Outside the gates it was like a battlefield,” he recalled.76 The student movement has since lost much of its power due not only to infighting and generational changes, but also to repression.77 Nevertheless the memory of these days remains vivid in the minds of activists today.

As one of the oldest in the region, Egypt’s state university system influenced similar institutions created later in the rest of the Middle East. The new universities that sprung up in the 1950s and 1960s looked to Egypt for guidance. “Cairo University . . . became the prime indigenous model for state universities elsewhere in the Arab world,” Reid writes.78 The other possible models—private American missionary schools, European colonial institutions, and Turkish universities whose significance faded with the fall of the Ottoman Empire—could not compete. Graduates of Egypt’s universities became professors in the new foreign national universities. In 1974, for example, Egyptians represented seventy-one percent of the teachers at the eight-year-old Kuwait University. Egyptian universities opened satellite campuses in Khartoum, Sudan, and Beirut, Lebanon, in 1955 and 1960, respectively.  Cairo University also attracted foreign students from around the region, who returned home with Egyptian training. Egypt continues to export academics, especially to the Gulf States, but today Egyptians express concerns that the influence flows in the other direction and is not friendly to academic freedom.

The History of Constraints on Academic Freedom in Egypt

Following on the heels of independence, the creation of a national university system gave hope to Egypt’s academics. “Cairo University was thought of as an establishment where you could get a free and secular education apart from the complex of religious education at al-Azhar. . . . Cairo University was the beginning of new era. . . . [It] included a lot of space for people of different intellectual movements and backgrounds,” said a professor who currently teaches at the university.79 Nevertheless, Egypt’s secular universities faced threats to academic freedom from their earliest days. The challenges ranged from attacks on individuals to interference with university curriculum. While these largely isolated incidents did not significantly hinder the universities’ influence at home and abroad, they foreshadowed the crisis that erupted shortly after Nasser’s takeover of the state in the 1950s and the systemic and insidious repression that characterizes Egyptian campus life today.

In the first half of the century, university and state officials occasionally charged individual academics with blasphemy. In 1913, for example, the Egyptian University sent Mansur Fahmi to the Sorbonne to prepare for a position in its philosophy department. When the university administration learned Fahmi had written his dissertation on the condition of women in Islam, it said he had defamed Islam by accusing it of mistreating women and claiming that the Prophet Muhammad had written the Quran for personal reasons. The university stripped him of his promised professorship and confiscated copies of the thesis it had funded. He was banned from government posts and only returned to teaching seven years later.

More established scholars were also vulnerable. In 1926, eminent scholar Taha Hussain was at the center of “one of the most famous Arabic literary battles of the century.”80 Al-Azhar condemned Hussain’s book On Pre-Islamic Poetry as blasphemy and sparked a parliamentary debate. Unlike Fahmi, Hussain received support from the rector of his university and the incident died down. These threats to academic freedom demonstrate the difficulties Egypt’s early academics faced trying to find a balance between secular and religious, and imported and more locally rooted approaches to education.

As the national university system began to grow in size and influence, a new government regime moved to co-opt it. Nasser, who took power in 1954, sought to shape higher education to serve his political purposes. He wanted academia to articulate an ideology for his brand of Arab nationalism and tried to enlist its support by controlling the campuses. “[F]reedom of thought, speech, and action was squelched. Police informers saturated the campus, and professors never knew the exact limits of permissible debate,” Reid writes.81 One academic described the blow as a watershed in university history. “Academic freedom in Egypt ended in 1954 when the soldiers threw out the liberal professors and decided to turn Egyptian universities into a government bureau,” said poet and former professor Ahmad Taha.82 Nasser also emphasized technical learning rather than “knowledge for knowledge’s sake,” Cairo University’s original mandate. As a result, the Faculties of Engineering and Medicine replaced those of Law and Arts as the most prestigious and popular. While such disciplines are important fields of study, the head of state’s influence over curriculum represented a loss of university autonomy. The universities’ institutional problems started in this era, too. The numbers of students increased dramatically after Nasser eliminated tuition, but the quality of education declined because the faculty and facilities were not expanded at the same time.

Under Anwar Sadat, the universities reached their peak of activism and then were stifled by state repression. Sadat assumed control of Egypt after Nasser died in 1970. During the early years of his tenure, he eased restrictions on the academic community, removing police from campus, allowing professors to elect their deans, and facilitating more student activities. Afraid of the left’s increasing influence, however, Sadat eventually cracked down on student activism with the University Law of 1979, which placed restrictions on student unions and other groups. He also surreptitiously encouraged Islamists in an effort to combat leftist influences; members of this group soon started pressuring their classmates to observe their interpretation of strict Islamic law. After signing the Camp David accords with Israel, Sadat’s alliance of convenience with the Islamists ended. A squad of militant Islamists from the radical group al-Gihad assassinated him on October 6, 1981. Sadat not only left a legacy of direct state repression on campus but also unleashed sociopolitical forces that continue to challenge academic freedom today.

Egypt’s universities now operate under the control of President Hosni Mubarak’s government,83 and academic freedom violations continue. An Egyptian journalist from al-Ahram, the country’s leading paper, told Human Rights Watch, “The government is against all freedom, whether left or right, the existence . . . not [of] a particular group but [of] independent universities.”84 The threats that universities face today may sometimes be less visible than under Nasser or Sadat, but as detailed below, they are pervasive and insidious. Incursions on academic freedom are destroying careers, restricting knowledge, and stifling creativity throughout Egypt’s higher education system.

Egyptian Universities Today

The structure that represses academic freedom today has been built by state and non-state actors and by academics themselves. The Egyptian government uses police, political appointees, and laws to control all areas of university life. Islamist militants, meanwhile, have used physical violence and public attacks to shape the content of higher education. A climate of fear has led professors and students to censor themselves and to avoid discussion of certain subjects.

In Human Rights Watch interviews with professors, researchers, students, commentators, and officials, the existence of so-called “red lines”—taboo subjects—emerged as the central obstacle to academic freedom in Egypt. Egyptians use this term to describe boundaries that cannot be crossed on or off campus. Red lines encompass three controversial subject areas that are particularly subject to scrutiny—politics, religion, and sex.

Academics agree, for example, that criticism of President Mubarak and his family has been completely off limits. “Some people say if anyone talks about the president you will be arrested,” said Mai Mustafa, an `Ain Shams student.85 This area includes discussion of pertinent subjects such as who will succeed the president when he dies or retires and, according to some professors, comments about certain senior officials.86 “There are implicit red lines, for example, the persona of the president, talking about succession, family members of the president,” said a political scientist at AUC.87 The red line does not extend to all politics or criticism of the government. “You can talk about the lack of democracy but not the family of the president,” Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid said.88 Egyptians can debate politics, but without using names.

Neither state nor society tolerates criticism, or even innovative interpretations, of Islam. “Religion is all red unless otherwise stated,” AUC researcher Reem Saad said.89 The boundaries of what is prohibited are broader and less clear than for politics. “In my case [as a political scientist], there is more room than [there is] for religious issues. . . . Religious issues are highly sensitive,” Cairo University professor Amr Hamzawy said.90 Islamists, who care less about political subjects, apply considerable pressure in the area of religion. Relations between Muslims and Copts (Egyptian Christians) also fall under this restriction. Alexandria University professor Nadia Touba said, “You [might] stay away from issues of Muslims and Christians today. Before it didn’t make a difference but today it makes a difference. You don’t want to offend anyone. We prefer to avoid [the topic].”91

Public discussion of sex is considered contrary to the religious and cultural traditions of Egypt. At the national universities, professors said they voluntarily stay away from books that challenge the sexual mores of the Muslim world. For example, vivid descriptions of sex or discussions of homosexuality and extramarital sex are off limits. “If something has sex, it’s not appropriate for the culture. . . . [Y]ou have to respect that. . . . Why would we choose [these books]? We wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching them,” English professor Dalia El-Shayal said.92 At AUC, censorship of course books has illuminated this red line. The state censor and Islamists have worked together to ban books that deal with sexual topics.

While politics, religion, and sex are the main red lines, other topics are dangerous to discuss in today’s universities. According to some academics, criticism of the military is usually off limits.93 Relations with Israel are also a touchy subject for those who challenge the prevailing view. For example, a professor who is willing to speak with Israeli professors is condemned as “supporting normalization,” even if he or she opposes the Israeli government’s policies.94 “[Discussions of] Israel and the Middle East are biased and unethically presented to the students. It’s OK to express your opinion, but they should give students the opportunity to get information and come up with their own opinions,” said Margo Abdel Aziz, an education specialist at the U.S. Embassy.95 Public condemnation of such controversial topics quickly leads to self-censorship.

According to one observer, the repression on Egypt’s campuses today is a reflection of changes in Egyptian society. “In society in general, the amount of freedom is getting less and less. Academic freedom as one of the signs of freedom in general is bound to be affected,” the observer said.96 Violations of academic freedom, however, also exacerbate the problems of society. They threaten to isolate Egypt from the international community and to create an educated class lacking the skills and knowledge to address the country’s problems and unable or unwilling to criticize the status quo.

[54] Geneive Abdo, No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 47.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Donald Malcolm Reid, Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 12. Unless otherwise noted, historical information and statistics in this chapter come from this book.

[58] Ibid., p. 32.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid., p. 60.

[61] Ibid., p. 32.

[62] Ibid., p. 77.

[63] The Arabic names in this report have been transliterated in a standard way, unless they belong to authors who published in English or interviewees who offered preferred English spellings of their names.

[64] Information Unit Periodical (Egypt: Ministry of Higher Education, 2001-2002), p. 22. In 1999-2000 1,175,155 students were enrolled. In 1998-1999, 195,156 students graduated.

[65] Ibid., p. 23.

[66] Ibid., p. 22.

[67] Donald Malcolm Reid, Cairo University, pp. 23-24; “About AUC [American University in Cairo]: History,” January 6, 2003, (retrieved May 13, 2004).

[68] “About AUC: Facts and Figures,” November 30, 2003, (retrieved May 13, 2004).

[69] “About AUC: Mission,” January 6, 2003, (retrieved May 13, 2004).

[70] Ibid.

[71] While AUC is the oldest and most prestigious private university in Egypt, other private institutions have sprouted up in recent years. In 1996, presidential decrees established four such universities: the Sixth of October University, October University for Modern Sciences and Arts, Misr University for Sciences and Technology, and the Misr International University. Information Unit Periodical, p. 38.

[72] Donald Malcolm Reid, Cairo University, p. 4.

[73] Ibid. See also Ahmed Abdalla, The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt (London: al Saqi, 1985).

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with Tamir Sulaiman Ibrahim, Cairo, February 20, 2003.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with `Imad Mubarak, Cairo, February 23, 2003.

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with Saad el-Raghy, professor of metallurgical engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Cairo University, Cairo, February 23, 2003.

[77] “Factions without one comprehensive vision for change led to disintegration of the movement. There was no transfer of experience from the 1970s to the next generation.” Human Rights Watch interview with Tamir Sulaiman Ibrahim, Cairo, February 20, 2003.

[78] Donald Malcolm Reid, Cairo University, p. 4.

[79] Human Rights Watch interview with Islamist professor, Faculty of Dar al-`Ulum, Cairo University, Cairo, March 4, 2003.

[80] Donald Malcolm Reid, Cairo University, p. 121.

[81] Ibid., p. 197.

[82] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad Taha, Cairo, February 15, 2003.

[83] Mubarak has indicated that he plans to run once again, for a fifth six-year term as president in September 2005.

[84] Human Rights Watch interview with al-Ahram journalist, Cairo, February 14, 2003.

[85] Human Rights Watch interview with Mai Magdi Mustafa, Cairo, March 2, 2003.

[86] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch interview with Amr Hamzawy, assistant professor, Political Science Department, Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences, Cairo University, Cairo, February 26, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, professor, Political Science Department, Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences, Cairo University, and Political Science Department, AUC, Cairo, February 25, 2003.

[87] Human Rights Watch interview with AUC political science professor, Cairo, February 18, 2003.

[88] Human Rights Watch interview with Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, professor, Political Science Department, Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences, Cairo University, and Political Science Department, AUC, Cairo, February 25, 2003.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with Reem Saad, research associate professor, Social Research Center, AUC, Cairo, February 25, 2003.

[90] Human Rights Watch interview with Amr Hamzawy, assistant professor, Political Science Department, Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences, Cairo University, Cairo, February 26, 2003. Talking about AUC censorship, his colleague al-Sayyid said, “There is a certain sensitivity when something is related to Islam or going beyond the rules of morality.” Human Rights Watch interview with Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, professor, Political Science Department, Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences, Cairo University, and Political Science Department, AUC, Cairo, February 25, 2003.

[91] Human Rights Watch interview with Nadia Touba, associate professor, English as a Foreign Language, Faculty of Education, Alexandria University, Cairo, February 24, 2003.

[92] Human Rights Watch interview with Dalia El-Shayal, assistant professor, English Department, Faculty of Arts, Cairo University, Cairo, February 27, 2003.

[93] Human Rights Watch interview with Reem Saad, research associate professor, Social Research Center, AUC, Cairo, February 25, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with Saadeddin Ibrahim, professor of sociology, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, and Egyptology, AUC, Cairo, February 24, 2003.

[94] Human Rights Watch interview with AUC professor, Cairo, February 16, 2003. This professor said, “I am very much against the policies of the Israeli government. . . . What is the politically most effective means of changing minds? I think it’s to intimidate people with your opinion.” Many of her colleagues, however, feel it is preferable to avoid contact. Ibid.

[95] Human Rights Watch interview with Margo Abdel Aziz, Senior EFL/Civil Education Programs Specialist, English Language Programs Office, U.S. Embassy, Cairo, February 19, 2003.

[96] Human Rights Watch interview with al-Ahram journalist, Cairo, February 14, 2003.

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