Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 December 2005
Issue No. 773
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (624)

To be free

Much was made of the Egyptian University's independence but its unique composition confirmed that it would always be subservient to financial state support. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk sees how the institute coped with the conflicting interests

Click to view caption
Ahmed Zaki Abul-Saud Pasha; Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed; Taha Hussein; The Egyptian University under construction

Universities in Europe appeared in the 11th and 12th centuries at the hands of what was known as the scholasticism movement. This movement sought to conciliate rationalism and religion, the approach led by the philosopher Thomas Aquinas. A number of cathedral schools were established that enjoyed a certain degree of freedom in their scholastic programmes and whose staff was filled with teachers of academic competence and fame. Some eventually turned into universities and enjoyed independence in the organisation of their affairs. This was the starting point for the fledgling concept of the independence of universities.

With the establishment of the bourgeois class, such metaphysical thought was no longer deemed appropriate, however, particularly as it was not sufficiently interested in humans and what benefits them. This class thus began to search for its own philosophy to solve its problems and turned to another source -- the life of the forefathers. This approach was more interested in the human and his problems than the philosophy of the Middle Ages due to its relative distance from spirituality and its strive to make human and human happiness the pivot of all activity. And thus arose what was known as the humanism movement.

This movement employed universities as centres for spreading its message, and with its establishment, expected to come under attack by followers of the scholastic movement. Proponents of the movement mobilised to spread their call throughout the universities, and the Dutch intellectual Erasthmus was their prime model. The importance of the concept of the "independence of the university" increased during this period as its officials sought to protect it from attack by the movement's adversaries.

With new discoveries in the natural sciences, the desire to maintain the independence of the university increased. There was the story of the Italian scientist Galileo, who diverged from the theory that the earth is the centre of the universe by proposing that the sun is the centre of a group of stars that orbit around it. This resulted in his trial before the church authorities, presenting a model for the importance of the independence of thought, all the more so once his theory was proven correct.

In short, the independence of the university is not a goal in and of itself as much as it offers space for the introduction of the new, which may be right or wrong, but which in the first case forms one of the most important tools of human development.

Unfortunately, when higher education first appeared in Egypt during the first half of the 19th century, it was established under the wing of the government. Its limited goal was to produce employees to turn the wheel of governance. As such, it was not accompanied by thought calling for the independence of scientific research as had happened in Europe.

Yet this notion began to entice Egyptians following the establishment of the private Egyptian University in 1908. It was established with private funds without any government assistance of note and aimed at knowledge for knowledge's sake and not for obtaining diplomas qualifying those desiring government posts. Most of those involved in its establishment were intellectuals who had been educated abroad, particularly in France, and who had absorbed Latin traditions calling for "independence of the university" such as Qasim Amin and Lutfi El-Sayed.

The 17 years following the establishment of the private university were marked by struggles between the old and the new. Institutes of higher learning, whose diplomas served as qualifications for government posts, a process Egyptians had grown accustomed to as the outcome of years of study, formed one side of the struggle. The other was represented by the private university, which presented knowledge for knowledge's sake, a concept not readily accepted by those who associated degrees with jobs. The outcome was that the old won out over the new.

In his book Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt, Donald Reid provides statistics that indicate students left the private university after they realised the futility of its degrees. When it was established, the university housed 754 enrolled students but this number decreased until there were only 107 by 1922. The university appeared to have been on its way to shutting down if it hadn't been for King Fouad I, whose name became associated to it when he undertook the presidency of its first administrative board. King Fouad strove to rescue it, and his efforts resulted in its transformation into a "royal" university, (although it maintained its original name of the Egyptian University) a development reflected in its position in society and politics.

THE OFFICIAL RECORDS making the Egyptian University subservient to the Ministry of Public Education reveal the reasons behind this measure. "In view of the Egyptian University's request that the Ministry of Public Education consider its degrees equivalent to the degrees of higher learning that provide qualification for employment in the government, and in view of the latter's response that it is not within its means to acknowledge the degrees granted by the university to its graduates in the manner desired as long as it remains distanced from supervising the course of study within it, and as the ministry has determined to establish a royal university, it will necessarily include among its departments a college of arts that may compete with the college of arts in the Egyptian University." Those in charge of the university's affairs had no other choice than to raise the white flag, particularly as they were facing "exalted royal will".

On 12 December 1923 an agreement was signed between the Ministry of Education, represented by its minister, Ahmed Zaki Abul-Saud Pasha, and the administration of the university. The agreement included four articles, the most important of which was the first, which included a number of provisions that conciliated between a desire for independence and subordination to the government. It provided for the Egyptian University to be a public institute that maintained its character of thought and ran its own affairs independently under the supervision of the Ministry of Public Education, as was the case of universities in Europe. It was also agreed that the government would complete the structure current at the time, which only included a college of arts, by merging the university with the schools of law and medicine after they were transformed into colleges, and adding the college of sciences. It was permitted to add other colleges later on, and it was required to respect the university's standing contracts with its instructors and staff.

On 23 January 1924 Al-Ahram published "the draft law on establishing the university", which stated that it would initially comprise four colleges, the minister of education would be its president by virtue of his post, and that it would have a "director who is the chief of staff as concerns administrative and executive powers and educational affairs, and who will preside over the university administrative board".

On Monday 11 May 1925 the administrative board of the "Egyptian University" in its royal cloak held its first meeting, and Al-Ahram published its details. The meeting was presided over by Ali Maher Pasha, the minister of education, and was attended by Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, the first director of the new university, and 14 of its 15 members, most of whom were big names in the world of administration and politics.

Many proponents of the idea of the independence of the university rejoiced at its rebirth. In an article titled "The university and scientific research", Ali Mustafa Musharafa warned against considering the university a collection of institutes of higher learning that aim to produce young technicians such as doctors, engineers and the like. Instead, he argued, the university brought life to true scientific spirit, particularly as "among Egyptians today are not a few who have undertaken scientific research in Western universities".

Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed spoke on the same issue, affirming the independence of the university so that "no one may limit the freedom of thought within it". It appears though that he was more optimistic than he should have been. It was not long before its unique composition confirmed that the independence of the university remains incomplete as long as the state supports it financially and it remains subservient to the Ministry of Public Education, a fact that was made clear on more than one occasion.

The most famous of these occasions took place on 3 March 1932 when the minister of education in the Sidqi government, Helmi Eissa Pasha, ordered the transfer of the famed writer Taha Hussein, the dean of the college of arts at the Egyptian University, to the post of inspector of elementary education in the ministry.

It wasn't long before the reason for this measure was revealed. Taha Hussein had refused to become the editor-in- chief of the newspaper issued by the government party and instead held onto his position at the university. He excused himself from accepting the post on the grounds that it was not in the government's interest for people to know that its employees write in its papers and that the dean of any of the colleges should certainly not do such and be subject to the scorn of colleagues and students alike. He also objected to the granting of some high officials in the government honorary university titles, as that, he argued, undermines the independence of the university.

The crisis worsened when the students of the college of arts gathered on the steps of the geography building to give speeches and chant. "During this they were joined by students of the colleges of medicine and science, and a female university student gave a speech."

At the same time, the board of the college of arts issued a statement expressing its shock at the transfer of Taha Hussein and stating that it "declares its complete confidence in Taha Hussein and that the transfer of the dean or any professor without referring to the college board, and for reasons not related to his work and not approved of by his colleagues, cannot possibly agree in form or content with that required by the independence, security and honour of scientific research and education." This statement succeeded in bringing the issue to light as a case of the independence of the university, and not merely that of one teacher being dismissed, no matter his importance.

The crisis further intensified after the strike expanded to include students in most of the university's colleges. Under the pressure of these developments and in light of Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed's history of defending freedom, it was necessary for him to take the step all were anticipating. He began by expressing his sorrow over the transfer of Taha Hussein and ended by saying that he could not approve of the ministry's action "which I fear will serve as a precedent that will abolish the difference between the various forms of university education".

On the university campus, the students of the colleges of law and arts joined together to call for the independence and honour of the university. The students issued a statement in which they stated that they had risen up to defend the university and its independence.

Helmi Pasha Ali responded that Article 16 of the 1927 law regulating teaching positions in universities placed the appointment of professors and all those on the teaching staff under the authority of the minister of education and that in following, he had the right to transfer them. He argued that the view of the university board is merely consultative, because "higher education cannot be distanced from the monitoring and authority of parliament, which itself is not enforced unless the minister of education is responsible for this by rule of the law that submits the Egyptian University to his authority".

Although acts of resistance persisted, the first battle over the independence of the university was thus brought to an end.

THE FIRST BATTLE OVER THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE UNIVERSITY gained widespread fame as it formed part of the national resistance to the term of Sidqi and due to the fact that it involved one of the most important personalities of the university, Taha Hussein. The second battle, however, did not earn as much acclaim, particularly since the position of the two sides had changed.

The battle began with the start of the academic year in September 1937, amidst political turmoil that resulted in the ousting of El-Nuqrashi Pasha from the Wafd Party, the collapse of the National Front, and the subsequent result of the opposition parties joining forces against the Nahhas government and the return of animosity against Abdeen Palace, particularly after Ali Maher assumed the post of head of the royal cabinet. It was under these circumstances that each party to the battle sought to use its weapons against the other. The Wafd Party used its traditional weapon of armies of students to flex its muscles before its adversary, as well as organisation of the "blue shirts", which was formed to confront the "green shirts" organisation of Misr Al-Fata, which had pledged allegiance to the Wafd Party's adversaries.

University director Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed was keen to distance the campus from student demonstrations. He provided a statement to Al-Ahram that was published on 1 October and in which he expressed his determination to bar any attempt to break order and spread chaos in the university. A few days later all the other papers published a statement to the same effect.

In an attempt to organise student activity a new statute was created for the university union elections, which were to take place in two stages, the first for the election of the college unions and the second to elect the general union. The union of each college consisted of two students from each year level, or from each department, in addition to a graduate of the college. The general union comprised four representatives from the union of each college including four members who had completed their studies at the Egyptian University. It met at the university head office and a president, two deputies, and a secretary were selected among the students. Then committees were formed, one for the school paper, one for sports competitions, another for the dormitories and one for social cooperation. Each committee was headed by an elected member of the teaching staff.

Al-Ahram commented on the new law by saying that students were anticipating their election day with a great deal of activity and zeal. "It appears that the elections battle this year will be fierce. There are a great number of voters, for the university now has nearly 6,000 students excluding the new students who have enrolled in the various colleges. Nearly 900 students have joined the college of law, 400 have entered the colleges of science and medicine, another 300 have joined the college of arts, 500 in the college of agriculture, 300 have entered the college of engineering, and 500 have enrolled in the college of commerce." How would Al-Ahram have described the numbers of students who join the colleges of Egyptian universities in this day and age, in which the numbers are dozens of times more now?

On Wednesday 13 November 1937 Al-Ahram wrote that the students had begun their election campaigns and had been "lining up their friends and supporters so that they all win on behalf of their colleagues in their school year". But matters did not develop calmly as had been expected. The students rejected the new statute that barred the nomination of students who had had disciplinary measures taken against them in the last year. They also opposed the condition of at least 10 persons testifying to the integrity of each candidate.

Following a confrontation between supporters and opponents who viewed this final condition as depriving students in departments with less than 10 students from being represented in the union, the opponents sent an open letter to the minister of education demanding that the new statute be amended, particularly as it had not yet been ratified.

Keen to secure the independence of the university and avoid embroilment in politics, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed issued instructions for election campaigns to be restricted to matters of trips and sports competitions "without any interest at all in political matters. The administrations of the colleges will monitor the speeches and if any are found to take a political direction, the culprit will be subject to discipline by the university."

The elections took place and Al-Ahram reported that they were conducted peacefully in several colleges. And yet the turbid political atmosphere outside the university was bound to enter, and resulted in students violating numerous directives. Most of them were supporters of the Wafd government, which had come to rely on its student base. Sometimes fist fights broke out between them and their adversaries among the supporters of opposition parties, whether those who supported Misr Al-Fata or Al-Ahrar Al-Dusturiun. The university director, determined to maintain its independence, was not pleased by this.

This drove Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, dedicated to keeping the university distanced from this tumultuous atmosphere that might tarnish its independence, to hold a meeting with the university board, which decided to cancel classes for a week. But the Wafdist government did not approve of this measure, particularly as the board had not consulted Abdel-Salam Fahmi Gomaa, the minister of education. This led to a new clash between the university and political authorities, despite the changing times. While the first clash had been with the government of Sidqi Pasha, which was popularly rejected, the second clash took place with the government of El-Nahhas Pasha, which relied on a parliament in which it had an overwhelming majority.

Some fancy that the position of this eminent professor stemmed from his long held inclinations towards Al-Ahrar Al-Dusturiun, but that is unlikely. He resigned to maintain the independence of the university on other occasions regardless of who was in power.

In any case, the government refused the suspension of classes the university director had proposed, and Al-Muqattam newspaper explained the reasons for this refusal. It was the government's opinion that suspending classes would not calm the turmoil because the incitement would renew as soon as studies resumed. Moreover, most of the students had not participated in the turmoil, "so if studies are suspended for a week then those who have no blame in the incidents will be deprived from receiving their lectures". The newspaper added that a possible cause of its obstinacy was that it did not want to admit that such turmoil was significant enough to justify shutting down colleges.

The crisis ended on 27 October 1937 when the university director sent a short letter to the minister of education submitting his resignation without reason. A response came that same day in another short letter accepting the resignation, which was followed by two developments.

Firstly, public opinion waited to see what would be the position of Taha Hussein, partner of Lutfi El-Sayed in the previous crisis. On the same day Al-Ahram published a news item stating that "the eminent Dr Taha Hussein Bey, dean of the college of arts, stayed at home today and did not attend the university as was expected." It was not long before he returned to his office, however, but did not this time participate in the resignation.

Secondly, efforts were made to impose tight monitoring of student activity within the university. It was decided in a meeting of the college deans to issue identity cards to the students in each college "after it became clear that many non- students enter illegally and physically harm them". Government circles brought back the "university guards" system, one that had been employed following the incidents of 1935. The Ministry of the Interior increased the number of these guards and distributed them among the various colleges. They were to answer directly to their deans. This is the system that remains in place until today.

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