23 September 2020
Published online 3 May 2012
Nature 485, 6 (03 May 2012)
Ismail Serageldin deserves the chance to prepare a new future for the Alexandria library.
One of the defining images of the revolution in Egypt last year was of people linking hands around the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the modern incarnation of the renowned Library of Alexandria destroyed in antiquity. At the height of the unrest, young people from the city formed a 24-hour protective cordon to save the library from being over-run by angry crowds.
The Bibliotheca, built close to the site of the original library, is popular with Egyptians, around a million of whom visit the library, the manuscript archives, and the associated museums and galleries each year. The staff organize hundreds of science clubs in Alexandrian schools, and scholars from all over the world give talks and workshops. Its lecture halls are packed most nights and the BioVision life-sciences conference held there last month was massively oversubscribed.
Alexandrians are immensely proud of their library, but some are sceptical of its director, Ismail Serageldin. A long-time champion of rationalism and reform in the Arab world, Serageldin should be an influential voice in the new Egypt. And yet when he speaks, few listen. What offends people most is his closeness to the hated Mubaraks.
Young and old in post-revolution Egypt have found the voice denied to them in 30 years of dictatorial rule and a common mantra is of fresh starts. They will not tolerate the continued presence of people and institutions that prospered during a regime that tortured its own people. Mubarak-era loyalists who seek a place in the new Egypt are parodied as fulool — turncoats. Serageldin is no fulool, but his record as a voice for secular reform is not of much consequence now. For his critics, what matters is that Mubarak's wife Suzanne chaired the library's board of trustees and that Serageldin accepted a seat in the Egyptian Senate at the request of her husband.
Serageldin's predicament has many parallels in Islamic history.
That is why there have been calls in the newly elected parliament for Serageldin to stand down. And it is why, on most afternoons, a small group of protesters stands outside the Bibliotheca, holding a single poster. In red letters are the words "Please leave it". Below the text is an enlarged photograph of Serageldin, his face crossed-out with a large X.
Serageldin retains the support of the library's 26-strong board of international trustees. In practice, however, a decision on his future will be made by Islamist MPs, who dominate the parliament, and by whoever wins the presidency in June. But they should remember that Serageldin's predicament has many parallels in Islamic history.
During the golden age of Islamic science, scientific advances were often associated with repression, principally because scholars had to rely on the reigning despots to support and fund their work. Important contributions to algebra and optics, for example, were made during regimes in the ninth and eleventh centuries AD that were repressive even by the standards of the time. And yet the scientists who worked for them, such as the mathematician al-Khwarizmi in Baghdad and the polymath ibn al-Haytham in Cairo, are now celebrated as pathfinders. Similarly, Serageldin could not have achieved what he did at the library without the support of the Mubarak regime.
An elected government would be well within its rights to start a new chapter in the library's leadership now. But a wiser course of action might be to allow Serageldin to complete his current term of office and to prepare a succession plan for the end of his directorship in 2015. That would take a lesson from history and honour the contributions of a talented and innovative leader.