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Defusing Tensions in Egypt

September 20, 2011

Officials at American University in Cairo on Monday announced agreements that are expected to end a strike by students and some employees that has gone on for more than a week.

The university agreed to involve students more in the budget process, and to share more information about university finances, as well as to a series of improvements in employee working conditions and salaries. But the university did not agree to cancel a 9 percent tuition increase -- which was originally one of the student demands.

The protests of the last week have focused attention on the challenges facing the American University in Cairo, long known as a leading outpost of Western higher education values in the Middle East and as a training ground for leaders of Egypt and other countries in the region. The movement that toppled Hosni Mubarak, educators in Cairo said, led many students to feel more empowered than in the past to demand concrete changes. And the ties of the university to the Mubarak establishment have led to awkward conversations and debates.

While classes went on for the past week, large and loud rallies were also held on the campus -- and the events had more intensity than any at the university in recent years. As was the case for the protests that ousted Mubarak, much of the organizing was done on Facebook, and videos were constantly added to YouTube.

Lisa Anderson, president of the university, sent letters to both student and employee leaders Monday in which she outlined the steps that the university could take to meet their various demands. Many of the pledges involved letting all parties know more about the state of university finances, appointing students to key committees, and studying some of the specific issues raised by students and employees. Some modest concessions were made about fees students pay for printing and parking, but the major theme was one of sharing information and collaborative decision-making. Several non-faculty employee groups will receive wage increases or new minimum salary levels.

Specific dates were attached to many of the pledges, and Anderson stressed her respect for the students and employees who went on strike. In her letter to student leaders, she praised their "sincere concern for the integrity and sustainability of AUC."

Anderson didn't detail the budget problems in her letter, but in an e-mail interview with Inside Higher Ed, she said that the university currently has an $8 million deficit (on an annual budget of $180 million), and she has rejected requests from some protesters that she dip into reserve or endowment funds (currently $450 million) to deal with the deficit and various demands.

She said her overall reaction to the student demands was that they "boil down to, as one of them put it, 'ensuring that they get their money's worth.' " Anderson said "that seems like a perfectly reasonable demand," and so she was happy to commit to more transparency and more student involvement.

Anderson, a political scientist who has spent her career studying the Middle East, said that there is a broader context for the student protests. Currently there is labor upheaval throughout Egypt, and there are protests at most of Egypt's national universities, where students and faculty members want more control over who appoints administrators (the government did so under Mubarak), she said. "Some of that is echoed in our protests, although many of the national university concerns are irrelevant here -- our student government has been democratically elected by the students themselves for decades, our president and deans are selected in conventional academic searches."

Still, Anderson added that "our students are animated by the same spirit that moved the revolution, and many of their demands are intended to ensure greater attention to the integrity and sustainability of our operations, which is never a bad thing."

Some of the students excited by Egypt's revolution have been critical of the university's ties to the old regime. A rumor circulating without any evidence to back it up may suggest how much some doubt the university's intentions. Most of the university moved to a new campus in New Cairo in 2008, but the university still has offices on Tahrir Square, site of the major anti-Mubarak protests. The rumor is that the university allowed pro-Mubarak snipers to use the roof of one of its buildings. In fact, one sign that the university did not authorize anyone to use its space was that its offices there -- including that of its university press -- were trashed by the security forces.

Anderson said that most people don't believe the "completely false" rumor, but that "of course it has been damaging."

The university's ties to Mubarak are real, however, and aren't surprising. The university prides itself on educating the nation's leaders, and just about every major institution in Egypt has AUC alumni, who in turn have promoted the university's interests. Mubarak's wife, Suzanne, is a graduate who has been an honored speaker on the campus. One of their sons is a graduate.

More of a sore point is that the university named a building on the new campus after Suzanne Mubarak. A petition against the name noted that the former first lady portrayed herself as a champion of literacy and education, even though, under her husband's government, "the public education system stagnated to such an extent as to render it a national embarrassment." Honoring Suzanne Mubarak was "a farce" that never should have happened, the petition said.

Anderson noted that the university has "suspended the use of the Suzanne Mubarak name," and plans to "convene a conference on names, memory and justice in transitions, bringing people from, say, South Africa and Germany, so we can have a campus conversation about what to do with what is, after all, a part of the university's history."

There was also dispute last week over an incident one day during the protests when some students took down an American flag on campus:

The removal of the flag bothered many American faculty members and plenty of Egyptian students on the campus, including many who backed the protests over all. Anderson noted that the students involved apologized.

A posting on the strike Facebook page did apologize, and noted that the flag was not burned, and was returned. But the post blamed Anderson, saying that when she and other administrators left a meeting with students, and rebuffed requests that they talk some more, the officials violated American values of democracy and freedom of expression. The flag, the post said, was taken down as a sign of awareness that the administration was violating those American principles, not as an attack on American principles.

Generally, the student protest websites are saying favorable things about the agreements announced Monday, noting that the strike had forced open the doors to more student involvement in the budget process. But the Facebook page also had some posts from students frustrated that the tuition increases were not going away, and others describing the news Monday as "a first round."

(Protest leaders did not respond to e-mail requests for interviews.)

Richard N. Tutwiler, chair of the University Senate, research professor, and director of the Desert Development Center at the university, said that in his 11 years there he has not seen sustained protests on the campus like those of the last eight days. When there have been protests in the past, he said, they were more likely to be about political issues than campus issues.

Even with the protests, however, he said that most classes were taught, with students attending rallies and classes, and with most employees doing their protesting off hours. He said that he sees the events of the last week as part of the "exuberance of expression" that the country is experiencing, post-Mubarak.

Tutwiler also said that it would be challenging for the university to satisfy everyone. He noted that the two main demands of the protests involved ending a tuition increase and paying more to employees. He suggested that there is a contradiction in seeking both at the same time.

"The university is tuition dependent for most of its operating revenue," he said. "If you reduce your tuition revenue, how can you at the same time increase wages?"

 

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