During the past two years, Egypt has embarked on a political transition from autocratic dictatorship to a reform-based democratic system of government. However, after so many years of an autocratic regime, implementing democracy is a challenge. The transformation requires well-designed political institutions, constructive opposition, transparent processes, and educated citizens. Democracy necessitates a systematic change, not just the removal of top leadership figures.
In the first days of the uprising in Egypt in early 2011, Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s long-serving chief spy under Hosni Mubarak and short-serving vice president, said: “Democracy could only be implemented when the people have the culture of democracy…Egyptians are not ready for [it]”. He was right. Of course; how would they have built a culture of democracy under Mubarak’s regime? The lack of democratic experience is obvious in the ongoing civil unrest since the ousting of Mubarak.
Higher education can play an important role as a public voice for democracy and as the source of knowledge needed for political development. Yet it is still unclear how higher education can make a difference and contribute to the democratization process.
After the 2011 revolution, students, supported by many faculty members, rallied to bring about serious changes at universities nationwide, including the dismissal of all university presidents and top leaderships who had been appointed by the old regime in accordance with their level of loyalty to it. Two years later, universities have made some dramatic changes—eliminating campus police, restoring the free student union election, allowing the election of presidents and deans, increasing staff and faculty salaries, approving new student bylaws, and drafting new university laws. Furthermore, a new 10 year higher education reform plan has been launched. It includes the establishment of 60 (20 public and 40 private) new universities to solve the problem of overcrowded campuses to help improve the quality of education and promote the development of a knowledge-based economy. However, the effects of these changes are still very limited and have not yet brought about real change to the status quo.
Remarkably, votes for presidents and deans have resulted in the election of many of the same people originally appointed by the old regime. One reason for these results is the hiring process of faculty at public universities. Progression through the academic ranks is most incestuous —hiring from the graduates of the same university with promotions from within the “home-grown” academic pool. A professor is the only one eligible to hold an administrative position as a chair, dean, etc. This employment and staffing practice remains unchanged.
In addition, the procedure of electing a new university president is quite remarkable. Each school elects five faculty members as representatives to vote in the election of the university president. Whereas, deans were elected directly by faculty, with the votes weighted differently. All teaching assistants and assistant lecturers were represented by only two voices while each lecturer, assistant professor, and professor has one vote. this format produced some tension during the process of electing deans, particularly in the larger schools. While, the election of university presidents was much more harmonious.
Reforming universities in Egypt was never an easy task. There is a significant resistance to change on the part of some faculty, especially when it comes to binding promotion to performance. This resistance existed even under Mubarak’s regime. The legislation that was drafted in October 2006 was not approved because some faculty refused the suggested change to the hiring and promotion protocol so that it would be based on qualifications and achievements.
In 2011, the minister of higher education in the interim government was forced to withdraw his decision to dismiss all university presidents, in response to student and faculty demand. University presidents rejected the decision arguing that they were qualified, that their appointments were legitimate and that such dramatic change in leadership would certainly cause chaos.
In the end, there is no “best” practice; it’s rather a matter of specific circumstances. And in Egypt, circumstances are calling for university democracy within the current limitations of the laws. But we look forward to where both students and faculty are engaged with greater freedom in Egypt’s transformation. Universities are slowly but surely establishing their own culture of democracy.
The changes seen thus far throughout Egypt’s universities are progressive. Universities in Egypt, within the current transition, need to move towards greater democracy. Faculty should continue to elect deans and chairs. The past practice of appointing deans has been rejected. However, I believe it might be better to return to the older tradition when a committee used to elect the dean not the full faculty. The shift from an appointed university president by the President of Egypt to an elected president is certainly welcome. It also improves university autonomy. As for students, they should have a vote in student-related topics but not in academic issues such as curriculum. Members of a university community should be able to channel their voice and elect the main leaders. University democracy can be a model for the national level by demonstrating a culture of tolerance and understanding. The conflicts that took place during the elections of deans and presidents elections can be eliminated with specific rules and regulation for the process. What we are observing in Egypt now is a hybrid democracy across higher education and it is the most appropriate approach during this transition phase.