Reforming Egyptian Universities before Autonomy: Possible or Not?!

In Salon Ibn Rushd by CIHRS

It is highly difficult to separate the aspirations for realizing autonomy of the university, maintain free academic research and other academic freedoms as well as lifting the heavy hand of the state and its security apparatus, on the one hand, from adopting a comprehensive reform agenda in Egypt, on the other. This was the notion affirmed by the cultural eve organized by Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies -CIHRS- within the framework of Ibn Rushd Salon under the title: “Reforming the University System: Is It Possible Prior to Realizing Autonomy?!” Participants included the prominent thinker Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid, Dr. Mohammed Abul-Ghar, professor at Cairo University, and a leader at the March 9th Movement to reclaim independence of the university, and Mohammed El-Sayed Said, Deputy Director of Al-Ahram Political and Strategic Studies Center. Deliberations were moderated by Mr. Sayed Deif-Allah, a CIHRS researcher.

The eve was started off by the speech of Dr. Nasr Hamed Abu-Zaid, who indicated that the Egyptian university has been “intellectually castrated”, yielding a bunch of “intellectually castrated faculty members”, albeit experts in various fields of study, the matter which makes autonomy of the University a far fetched dream.

The university institution has always been required to function as a provider of modern knowledge, but not to tackle the ideology establishing this “knowledge”, Dr. Abu-Zaid argued. He explained that this was the formula designed by the religious reform era in the late 1800s and early 1900s represented in the notion that “we could import modern technology and science from Europe but not philosophy, morals or ideologies”. Nasr argued that Sayed Qutb was the typical representative of this notion; however, such a notion is already rooted in the religious reform discourse. Consequently, the problem of the Egyptian university, according to Dr. Abu-Zaid, since incipience, constitutes in the fact that the society, both politically and religiously, needed it provided that the university would not tackle ideologies, and that any attempt to verge on the boundaries of the modernist ideologies was very rigidly rebuffed.

Following 1925, an attempt to promote free thought was foiled, Dr. Abu-Zaid added. During this period, Ahmed Lotfy Al-Sayed resigned while Taha Hussein was transferred to the Ministry of Education. Though born ailing, the university was not completely defected – it kept resisting, however, under political pressures and nationalization of every thought. By the wake of 1952, the university totally fell apart. Dr. Abu-Zaid explained that the purgation movement within the university, in 1952, included extremely leftist communist figures as well as Islamic rightist ones.

He added that the intellectual castration is on the rise now, reflected in the supervision of academic theses; professors, under this continually self-reproductive environment, turned into “tyrants”, satisfied only with students’ absolute compliance to their demands. He further explained that this attitude is still prevalent even in “academic promotion committees”, mentioning certain cases of young academics who tried to get over these fences and were, consequently, denied promotion as it is known that in Egyptian universities thinking is prohibited, and technocrats are the only brand tolerated.

Dr. Abu-Zaid affirmed that the problem does not lie in modifying the university laws, though it is an important factor, but rather in how to re-separate the political and intellectual dimensions. The only solution, he stressed, is realizing “absolute autonomy” of the university; however, he explained that this cannot be achieved over night, due to the accumulation of generations who were subject to the process of “intellectual castration” that reached its peak in our present time.

Dr. Abu-Zaid affirmed that the call for absolute autonomy of the university does not exclude Al-Azhar, arguing that realizing an “autonomous Azhar” can turn it into a typical intellectual institution. The first step to realize reform would be to confine religious education to undergraduate and graduate studies, he added. The divide between educational and civil education always fragments society into two, explaining that education should be standardized for all Egyptians from elementary stages through high school; religious education in al-Azhar University would then be introduced at the university level.

Egyptian universities are totally controlled by the authorities; Cairo University, itself – founded as a secular university—involves a school that does not accept Christians, which is unconstitutional, as all universities are financed by Egyptian taxpayers’ money. He added that we have to find out how to restore the real role of the university apart from considerations of politicians, clergymen and the huge legion of professors who have become part of the corrupt system.


Dr. Mohammed Abul-Ghar intervened affirming that first and foremost the university system cannot be changed before realizing autonomy. He added that the typical university has several functions, central to which are acquainting students with general knowledge and sensitizing them with all developments underway in the world at large, then building students’ personalities. According to Abul-Ghar, beating and suppression, first at home then at school, and at a later stage at university, undermine Egyptian students’ personalities, while they can not find any sources of self-esteem nor boost their creativity or enhance their capabilities to take and carry out decisions.

Dr. Abul-Ghar added that one of the functions of the university is to teach graduates a certain craft through which they can earn their bread. This function, despite improperly done by the university, is no longer important, especially as academic degrees no more serve as adequate or sufficient qualification for any person to practice whatever they had learned at university.

The function of providing general knowledge to students, Abul-Ghar added, was almost never accomplished in classrooms due to a number of reasons including classrooms bad conditions and busy-scheduled faculty members.

Dr. Abul-Ghar indicated that “wall journals” are no more allowed in universities; and if permitted, the content should be reviewed by the college undersecretary, the dean and security officers. During the fifties, he recalled, the university used to stage artistic, theatrical, musical or sportive competitions—an activity which is totally lacking today. Though discussing politics was prohibited by then, discussing culture and knowledge was permitted extensively owing to public support of the then-revolutionist tide, he argued.

Dr. Abul-Ghar affirmed that the educational function of the university has been completely undermined after students have become totally dependent on “notes” designed by professors for the different subjects. Consequently, research and library use have become no more of interest to students, and university has appeared like a rather advanced high school.

Stressing that without free autonomous university, reform is hopeless, Dr. Abul-Ghar explained that security members have become in totally control of universities though they are supposed to only guard universities’ facilities. Their function, however, has included guarding the minds, preventing free speech, thought or assembly, still further assaulting and arresting students and imposing hegemony over university student groups. Security figures even interfered in the appointment of teaching assistants and granting academic missions to professors. He affirmed that without eliminating this security hegemony, there will be no hope to realize university autonomy or reform, stressing the necessity to put an end to the governmental hegemony represented in controlling selection of university presidents, college deans, and, sometimes, heads of departments. Dr. Abul-Ghar argued that this has all fallen within the competence of the National Democratic Party Policy Committee.. He affirmed that university autonomy can be realized through an extended movement on the part of the professors manifested in sit-ins and strikes till freedom and autonomy of university are achieved.

Dr. Mohammed el-Sayed el-Said affirmed that the university is supposedly an exceptional social entity, that’s why the university cannot resonate with tyranny, as much as meanings of tyranny and thought cannot be concordant.

He explained that the creation of the Egyptian university was a project to provide Egypt with access to the world of universities and academic education all over the world; Egypt by then had an alternative institution bound with the Arab and Islamic culture, which stopped to progress at medieval centuries. This institution was represented in traditional religious schools (Kuttab) and other forms of religious education. Dr. Said then argued that Egyptian University as a project was born precociously, affirming that the events following the 1952 military coup cannot be paralleled to what had happened previously in an intellectually appropriate manner. He explained that the neglected autonomy and the confiscated academic freedoms can only be seen as an extension of the widespread confiscation of public freedoms and negligence of the rule of law during that period. The nation, as a matter of fact, witnessed a period of sustained confiscation of public freedoms and negligence of the rule of law as of 1952, which was applied to the university as well as all brackets of society. Certain laws were created to be violated; most legislations and laws were promulgated in interim terms or for certain people or to deal with a special case like parliamentary legislations, trade unions and political life.

Dr. Said contended that the key to saving university is not only ensuring its autonomy but also, and more importantly, ensuring final democratization in the country based on sovereignty of the nation, citizenship, rule of law, protection of freedoms through the law, and compliance of those vested with public authorities with law as much as all other citizens.

Dr. Said added that there are certain other recent unattractive processes on top of which is considering universities as substitute conscription grounds in favor of state authority. The ministerial and political elite were being made up in Egypt over a very long period till 1974 from among faculty members. Dr. Said further argued that university professors were chosen as ministers before 1952, when the political and the academic were mixed up—the latter to be neglected—while the premier ambition of academics by then were geared to undertake a ministerial or a bureaucratic post. Dr. Said then explained that within the Nasserite progressive agenda, a certain slogan was devised purporting that the university should serve society. Thus, the academic knowledge contract, a cornerstone of the autonomy of universities which are supposed to educate people and provide a niche for discussion about modern discoveries and knowledge, and to teach people the latest of human knowledge in all fields; this contract was totally understated. Dr. Said affirmed that reforming university requires reforming Egypt as a whole and restoring it as a democratic state as a condition of ensuring solution of the basic aspect of the issue, namely ensuring academic freedoms and empowering universities to design their own systems. He further explained that the academic position is not necessarily based on equality, whether in terms of achievement, knowledge or skills, the matter which means that applying equality and the concept of demagogic management of university education could lead to a disaster. The demagogic trend renders distribution relations more important than production.

Dr. Said affirmed that viewing the university certificate as a sacred criterion is a real shortcoming in the demagogic and bureaucratic mentality and entrenching the idea of the post as an alternative to enjoying authentic prestige. He added that despotism in our country was not confined to confiscation of public freedoms, but it also imposed levels of lack of competence in all sectors.

Dr. Said added that the public space in Egypt, starting the last quarter of the 19th century, witnessed a new face for the drama, cinema, political strikes, intellectual gatherings, newspapers and magazines; in the frontline of this process were the intellectuals and artists.. Afterwards, this space was filled up with the military and the police, the matter which lead to a systematic negligence of education and severe undermining of universities.

Dr. Said further stressed the necessity to restore academic freedoms and autonomy of universities, and that university professors would be allowed to set their own laws, and pursue the Egyptian renaissance project based on accelerating accumulation of symbolic capital more than commodity capital, as well as enabling the university to conduct free interaction with students and to apply advanced academic techniques used worldwide.

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