|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
7 -13 December 2000
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A Diwan of contemporary life (367)
The Cairo University opened in 1908 as the Egyptian University and was subsequently renamed King Fouad University. It was an autonomous institute of higher learning, essential to the country's social and cultural make-up. That it started off as a privately-run institution made for controversy. Who would be running the university, what functions they would serve and which foreign professors would be appointed -- prominent Egyptian scholars were passed up -- also proved major talking points. From Al-Ahram, Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* observes the birth and growth of Egypt's first major academic establishment
The first universityThe Egyptian University was founded on 21 December 1908 as a private institution. If its founders were of different social standing and political affiliations they were, nevertheless, united in their belief that the Egyptian University was essential to the social and cultural life of the country. They, therefore, pushed ahead with their initiative in spite of the objections of British High Commissioner Lord Cromer who feared that such an institution would only breed troublemakers hostile to the British occupation of Egypt.
Although Egypt's first university got off to a promising start, it began to flounder with the onset of World War I, to the extent that it was thought that it might have to close down. Al-Ahram was among the many voices that rose to the defence of the nascent educational institution, writing on 19 October 1915, "Many are not aware of the function of this university that was founded in Cairo. Some believed it would deliver knowledge in bags and distribute it house by house, pearl by pearl, until every home was filled with precious wisdom. Others imagined it would enable us to dispense with other higher institutes of learning, while yet another group sniffed at it because they felt its degrees failed to offer its graduates a route into government employment."
Nonetheless, when Prince Fouad assumed the throne in 1917 the university weathered the crisis. Egypt's new monarch had a long association with the university, having served as the chairman of its board of directors from its inception to 1913. It is no wonder, therefore, that in the first year of his rule he undertook to transform the university into a government-sponsored institution, forming towards this end a committee headed by Minister of Public Education Adli Yakan.
However, it would take another eight years before the institution's transformation into King Fouad University became official with the promulgation of the royal edict to this effect on 11 March 1925. During this interval much transpired to work in favour of King Fouad's plans. For one, by the 1920s British colonial authorities had radically altered their attitude towards a state-run university. In The University of Cairo and the Making of Modern Egypt, Donald Reed explains that the founding of the American University in Cairo in 1920 raised British fears of a growing American cultural influence in Egypt on the one hand and, on the other, apprehensions of a popular reaction to the establishment of an institution that was initially evangelical in nature.
By the end of the first quarter of the 20th century there were seven higher educational institutions -- the recently-founded schools of agricultural, commerce and veterinary sciences in addition to the long-established faculties of law, medicine, education and engineering -- and it was increasingly felt that these diverse schools should be amalgamated within a single institutional framework.
Finally, there was the question of the status of a privately-run Egyptian university and the effects this status had on its graduates. We learn of this problem in an official document, published in Al-Ahram on 3 January 1924, in accordance with which the Egyptian University was placed under the auspices of the Ministry of Education in view of the fact that "the Egyptian University has petitioned the Ministry of Public Education to consider its degrees as higher educational institute certificates qualifying their holders for civil service positions. The latter had responded that it could not confer the desired recognition upon the certificate granted by the university to its graduates as long as instruction in that institute remains outside the competence of the ministry."
Egyptian University officials had no alternative but to raise the white flag and submit to the ministerial decree, particularly as this decree emanated from the "supreme royal will." The actual process of bringing the university under the Ministry of Education had begun well before this. On 12 December 1923, the Ministry of Education and the Egyptian University concluded an agreement, the most important article of which was the first, which stated:
"The Egyptian University shall be a public institute which shall preserve its juridical identity and conduct its affairs autonomously under the supervision of the Ministry of Education as is the case with universities in Europe. The government shall undertake to complete the current structure of the institution, which at present contains only a faculty of humanities, by merging into the university the schools of law and medicine, which shall be transformed into faculties, and the Faculty of Science. It will remain possible to add other faculties at a later stage. The government shall honour the university's commitments towards its current professors and staff." Finally, "The current board of directors of the Egyptian University shall have one or more members on the administrative boards of the Faculty of Letters and the Faculty of Science."
On 24 January 1924, Al-Ahram published a draft law which would establish the newly-constituted national university. In addition to opening the four faculties mentioned above, the institution would have as its president the minister of education and a managing director as its "most senior administrative, executive and educational officer" who would also "act as chairman of the university's board of directors." The board of directors, in addition, would have a deputy managing director "who will assume the responsibilities of the managing director in the event this post falls vacant and will implement the tasks assigned to him by the managing director." It will have a secretary responsible for "the collection of tuition fees, student registration, the documentation of graduates and posting examination results." And finally, there will be the deans of the various faculties "who may call for board meetings and who, by virtue of their positions, shall be members in all committees, as they are ultimately responsible for the marking of examinations and for counselling students in matters pertaining to their curriculum of study." The draft law also included "temporary provisions" governing the transition of the colleges of medicine, law and science to university faculties.
Because 1924 was also the year that brought Egypt's first constitutional elections and the subsequent storms under the short-lived "People's Government" headed by Saad Zaghlul, it was more than a year before the draft law came into effect. But finally, on 3 February 1925, Al-Ahram announced that the "Ministry of Education has pulled the draft law concerning the Egyptian University and its appended protocol out of its archives, revised them and decided to submit them to the consultative legislative council prior to bringing them before the cabinet, then presenting them to parliament in its forthcoming session." King Fouad, however, was not inclined to wait for parliament, which was due to meet on 23 March of that year. Instead, he issued a royal edict to bring the bill into effect.
On Monday 11 May 1925, the board of directors of King Fouad University met for the first time. As we learn from Al-Ahram, the meeting was chaired by Minister of Education Ali Maher Pasha and attended by Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, the university's first managing director, and 14 of the board's 15 members. Among them were some prominent names in Egyptian political and intellectual life, notably Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat, Hafez Afifi, Mansour Fahmi and Taha Hussein. It is not surprising, given the importance of the occasion, that speakers during the meeting paid tribute to King Fouad, "the first president of the Egyptian University which was the kernel from which this larger university was born" and "to whose munificent hand, above all, we owe our gratitude for laying the foundations" of this institution.
The officials were keen that the newly-reconstituted university would not be perceived solely for its immediate practical functions but also for its higher mission, a view that was shared by Al-Ahram readers. Under the headline, "The University and Scientific Research," Ali Mustafa Musharrafa cautioned against subscribing to the notion that the university was merely a collection of higher level schools whose function was to produce "technicians" in such fields as medicine and engineering. Rather, he writes, its aim was "to revive the true scientific spirit," particularly as "Egypt already has a considerable number of academics who have conducted scientific research in Western universities." Another reader, Youssef Aref, held that the new institution differed from other higher educational institutions in that it aspired to "erase the differences between students of various faculties by instilling in them civic-minded hearts and spirits." He continues, "Before anything else, before being a member of the faculty of medicine, law or science, a student is first and foremost a son of the university, part of the entire body working on behalf of the whole rather than solely for himself."
In spite of these lofty aspirations, or perhaps precisely because of them, there arose numerous controversies regarding the appointment of the staff best qualified to teach the students and to generate the desired academic spirit in the university. Perhaps the most contentious issue was to what extent should the teaching staff consist of foreigners. Musharrafa argued that in its initial years the university and its students would better profit from bringing professors from abroad. "They are the models and are, therefore, the best equipped to ensure a good start for the university. Science knows no nation." But he added: "Let us work with all our strength toward generating the expertise and skills among Egyptians so as to raise them to the ranks of those professors. At that point we will truly be able to replace foreigners with Egyptian teachers of whom we can rightfully boast to the world."
Evidently, the university officials were also of this opinion. On Wednesday 8 April 1925 Al-Ahram reported that the university board of directors had resolved to engage foreigners to serve as the deans of the four faculties: an American for the Faculty of Science and Engineering, a British professor for the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacology and two Frenchmen for the faculties of Letters and Law.
Many, of course, objected. In a lengthy article entitled "Beware of Privileges" an Al-Ahram reader cautioned the minister of education against appointing foreigners in senior university positions in particular. So, too, did the regular columnist Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed who argued that this course of action was reminiscent of the "modernists" who insisted upon "building the roof of the house before laying the foundations." "Was this university established for the instruction of expatriates in Egypt? Why this rebellion against Egyptian professors who have obtained academic degrees from Europe?" he asked.
In response, another reader, who called himself "Impartial," argued that it was mistaken to think that the position of faculty dean was "a purely administrative post and should, therefore, be conferred upon Egyptian nationals." Rather, "The dean's primary role is educational, for he is first and foremost a professor entrusted with the task of instruction and creating the appropriate academic climate." He adds that during its academic revival Japan initially relied heavily upon foreign professors, the number of which had risen at one point to 30,000 but eventually fell off to 3,000 by 1902.
In spite of the controversy, the university went ahead and hired a number of foreigners, the first group of which filled the position of dean of the faculty of letters and taught philosophy, geography, Arabic literature, history, French literature and economy. All the professors were French with the exception of a Belgian who was for all intents and purposes French. The flood of Frenchmen so disturbed Lord Lloyd, the British high commissioner, that he cautioned his government against the rise of the influence of "Latin" culture over Anglo-Saxon in the new university.
Many were incensed that a number of established Egyptian professors who had served in the Egyptian University up to this point were passed up. Mansour Fahmi, Ali El-Anani and Ahmed Deif, for example, former professors of philosophy, logic and ethics, were appointed by the Ministry of Education to positions in secondary schools or higher educational institutes. Al-Ahram was indignant. "Can the treatment of these individuals be any baser? Is it possible that the prestige of the doctorate and over 12 years of experience have sunk to such an abyss?"
Evidently, too, the appointment of foreign staff members generated tension within some of the departments to the extent that, on 3 August 1925, the Ministry of Education was forced to issue a statement denying rumours of discord between the French dean of letters and his Egyptian staff members. Such rumours, it stated, "are detrimental to the reputation of the university at a time when it needs the support of reliable authorities and scholars from many countries." Simultaneously, Mansour Fahmi issued a statement denying other rumours that Egyptian teachers in the Faculty of Letters were disgruntled at the appointment of foreign staff members. "We publicly declare that we welcome this opportunity to cooperate with Western scholars whose contributions are urgently needed by the faculty and are vital to the academic and literary revival in our country," the statement said.
Following the statement issued by this famous professor of philosophy, tension subsided and attention soon became riveted on the university's progress once it opened its doors to the public.
From its new premises in Qasr Al-Zaafaran the university administration began to issue its regulations governing admissions. In addition to submitting the appropriate official application from, applicants to the Faculties of Law and Letters were required to have a secondary school certificate in humanities while applicants to the faculties of medicine and science were to have secondary school certificates in science. They were also required to undergo a medical examination. Applicants also had to sit for an entrance exam. For those seeking admission into the faculties of science, medicine or pharmacology there was a written examination in physics, chemistry and general knowledge in which one of the five questions was to be answered in English or French. The admissions exam for other faculties was administered over two days. On the first day students were tested in general knowledge and were required to present, in French, English or Arabic, a summary of a question posed to them in English or French. On the second day they took language proficiency examinations.
Naturally, there was the question of fees. The entrance examination fee was LE1 and was non-refundable. Tuition fees were LE30 per year for all faculties with the exception of the pharmacology department which was LE20 per year. Since these were quite large sums by the standards of the time we can surmise that King Fouad University was aristocratic by birth, setting it apart from other higher educational institutes that charged far lower tuition fees and were, therefore, more accessible to the middle and lower classes. But the university was not overly rigid in the financial side of its admissions policy, for it waived the tuition fees for 24 candidates who must have had outstanding qualifications.
The next item of business was the inauguration of the various faculties. The opening ceremony for the Faculty of Letters took place on 16 October 1925 and was attended by no fewer than 250 students "and a significant number of literati and enthusiasts of science and literature." The faculty's dean, Monsieur Gregoire, "delivered an inspiring speech alternating between French and English and then read out an eloquent address in Arabic with nearly perfect classical pronunciation, which merits the greatest admiration." Although the law stipulated that Arabic was to be the language of instruction in the faculty, it was generally accepted that the professors engaged from abroad would be lecturing in their native languages. It is not surprising, therefore, that the dean took the occasion to encourage students to "perfect their knowledge of English and French, which are the languages of academia in most countries of the world." He added, "This should not be difficult for our Egyptian students, most of whom are proficient in English, while French is an easy language to acquire."
Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayyid, the managing director, reminded the audience that the university was an autonomous institution, a status that "prevents anyone from restricting the freedom of thought in it." He continued, "It is the custom in many nations that universities refrain from including in their regulations disciplinary measures in the manner of ordinary law out of their conviction that university students are dedicated to their academic environment and are not inclined to behaviour that would merit punishment."
In an interview with Al-Ahram a week later, on 23 October, El-Sayyid said the university had admitted 174 students to the Faculty of Letters and 240 to the Faculty of Science. Although the nascent institution had to engage foreign instructors "there will be Egyptian teaching assistants to help the students understand their lessons, but who will also be translating into Arabic studies in the sciences and humanities."
This may have been the case, but shortly afterwards Al-Ahram reported that the university lacked sufficient Arabic reference works and even sufficient English-language reference works in many subjects. One solution that was considered was to "publish a monthly 100-page magazine containing the lectures of the professors in philosophy, literature, ethics, sociology, Arabic literature, the history of the ancient Orient, the history of Islamic nations and demography." One wonders, however, whether this marked the birth of the Egyptian version of the university book that became such a lucrative industry in Egyptian universities.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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