Egyptian university professors threaten full strike

Published online 29 September 2011

Eight months after joining the street protests that led to President Mubarak's downfall, Egyptian university professors are once again taking to the streets, this time to call for reforms to the appointment of university leaders.

Hazem Zohny

University professors protest outside the prime minister's office.
University professors protest outside the prime minister's office.
Dalia Al-Akkad

A protest by some 5,000 university professors and faculty from across Egypt on 11 September 2011 brought the streets of downtown Cairo to a standstill. Protestors came out with chants and banners demanding that the interim government purge public universities of presidents, deans and department heads appointed by the ousted regime, a commitment made by the interim government in May, but still yet to happen.

In a series of private meetings with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, several activist professors, such as Layla Soweif, a mathematician at Cairo University and Abd El-Geleel Moustafa, a cardiologist at Cairo University, requested that any new appointment be made through an independent and transparent electoral process.

"Universities have stopped being places of education for decades. The former regime's total control over them transformed them into institutes where you went to unlearn any lingering notions of democracy or political awareness that you may have accidentally picked up in your youth," says Yosri Sameh, a post-graduate veterinarian at Ains Shams University in Cairo as he marches across the streets of the capital.

This drive for greater academic freedom and transparency in Egypt's education system began in 2004 with the founding of the 9 March Movement — a group of activist academics who's mandate is to campaign for the independence of Egypt's universities from state security and government interference and to fight decades of corruption.

In 2010, the Supreme Administrative Court in Cairo ordered an end to the three decades-long occupation of university campuses by security guards from the interior ministry. Many faculty members argue the ruling was never fully implemented.

"What is clear is that certain elements from state security are definitely back on campus in civilian clothes – this is something that everyone is aware of," said Sahar Talaat, a pathologist at Cairo University.

The National Democratic Party (NDP), the former ruling political power, had complete control of universities for decades. This rule resulted in single candidate student elections and the state security apparatus having the authority to approve all university heads, which usually, favoured those with ties to the NDP.

Democratic universities

They have contracts, and if these are indiscriminately terminated and they are forced to resign, they will have the right to sue the state.

Although the NDP has been dissolved by the Higher Administrative Court in April 2011, several university presidents have refused to resign and remain in power despite a promise from Sharaf in May 2011 that all university heads will resign in early August 2011.

The presidents contend they have not been accused of any wrongdoings and their terms of employment are valid.

"The universities' leaderships see this decision as humiliating," Moustafa Kamal, provost of the University of Assiut, told  University World News . "How come incumbent heads of universities are dismissed, allegedly because they belong to the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak? There are officials who served in the Mubarak era still working in other state institutions."

Professors from at least 19 public universities voted on escalation if their demands are not met at a meeting of members of the Academic Teaching Institutes (ATI) in the Cairo University Teaching Club on 11 September.

"Based on the votes we have gathered, the overwhelming majority is in favour of a strike in all universities at the start of the academic year on 1 October if our demands are not met," announced Sherif Hammed, executive coordinator of the meeting.

The 5,000 members of ATI then marched to the ministerial cabinet headquarters after the meeting, demanding to meet the prime minister to reiterate their request that The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's interim military rulers, terminate all contracts with university heads, as well as better pay for its members and an increase in government spend on scientific research to 2.5% of GDP, from the current 0.24%. However, they were denied an audience.

The Supreme Council of Universities has decreed that only university heads who have resigned, or whose terms of employment have ended, will be replaced through elections. These terms only opens up 40% of university leadership seats, according to the daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.

There have been reports that the Cairo University president's resignation, which was pending for weeks, was finally accepted, along with other faculty heads in various universities. This alone is unlikely to stop a strike commencing with the first day of the academic year, however. "I think it's been made quite clear that if all university and faculty heads haven't resigned by then, we will strike," Talaat said.

Yet for many of the academics involved, a strike remains a last resort to be avoided if at all possible. Mohamed Belal, a professor of agriculture at Cairo University, says he would accept university heads remaining in place until their current contracts expire.

"They have contracts, and if these are indiscriminately terminated and they are forced to resign, they will have the right to sue the state," says Belal.

A faulty electoral system

Over 5,000 university professors joined the march, which brought downtown Cairo to a standstill
Over 5,000 university professors joined the march, which brought downtown Cairo to a standstill
Dalia Al-Akkad

Other researchers are worried that the new electoral system might not meet their expectations. Khaled Samir, leader of Ain Shams Movement for the Independence of Universities, criticized the proposed electoral process of university presidents on Baladna Bel-Masry, a popular Egyptian talk show.

Under the new system, faculties with less than 20 staff, or less than 4 professors, will have their leaders assigned, rather than elected by the faculty. Consequently, most provincial universities will not have elected leaders.

It is unclear who will be responsible for appointing university leaders. "This is not clearly stated anywhere, but usually it is the president of the university or the Supreme Council of Universities," said Talaat.

Nevertheless, some universities have now begun to register candidates for elections. Voting for department heads is already underway at Ain Shams University, Cairo, and Assiut University in Asyut.

Yet it remains far from clear how the dispute between professors and the ministry of higher education and scientific research will be resolved. What does seem certain is that, without major reforms, students will likely return to classes without lecturers at the start of the academic year.

Additional reporting by Dalia Al-Akkad.