Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2011
Issue No. 1052
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Zewail's dream comes true

Egyptian Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail has launched a City of Science and Technology with the support of the Egyptian government, reports Mohamed Abdel-Baky

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Zewail receives the American University in Cairo presidential medal

More than 10 years ago, Egyptian Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail met with former president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo in order to discuss the future of scientific research and technology in Egypt.

After the meeting, Zewail proposed a project, the City of Science and Technology, that would train Egyptian scientists in cutting-edge science and technology.

Mubarak welcomed the idea, telling Zewail that "all government resources are at your disposal and all Egyptians stand by you in achieving such a dream."

Nevertheless, over the past decade the government has done nothing to advance Zewail's project.

Things began to change earlier this month after the ruling Higher Council of the Armed Forces (HCAF) earmarked the proposal as a national project, with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf announcing the formal launch of the renamed "Zewail City of Science and Technology" earlier this month and saying that the initiative was urgently needed by Egypt.

"Egypt is witnessing a crucial moment in its history. We cannot become a truly developed country without local industry based on strong education and scientific research," Sharaf said.

The government's role will be limited in the project to providing the land and facilitating the construction of the city, which will be located in 6 October City and built on 1,200 square kilometres of land.

To ensure the independence of the project, a board of trustees will be formed including prominent scientists. These will include Susan Hockfield, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gregorio Escario, president of the Cebu Institute of Technology, leading surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub, prominent physician Mohamed Ghoneim, Egyptian-American scientist Farouk El-Baz and businessmen Mohamed El-Erian and Amr Younis.

A board of advisors including Egyptian scientists, businessmen and public figures will be formed in August or September this year.

Zewail has announced that the city will be incorporated under a formal charter later this summer and that the board of trustees would meet once or twice a year, though the first meeting is unlikely to be soon.

The preliminary budget for the project is $1 billion in loans and $1 billion in cash, Zewail said, with ordinary people being invited to contribute via a bank account set up at the Central Bank of Egypt.

The bank has promised to provide additional facilities, he said, such that "this national project is characterised by administrative and financial independence."

The project's trustees would work to raise additional funds from the EU, China and the US, Zewail said, with UN agencies providing technical assistance.

The project is intended to offer specialist undergraduate and graduate education in different fields of science, including medicine, chemistry and engineering. Priority will be given to fields needed to improve Egyptian industry.

"This is not a university in the traditional sense. This is an integrated city of science and research for the market and the economy," Zewail said.

Minister of Higher Education Amr Ezzat Salama said that Egypt was looking for scientists specialising in energy, biotechnology, natural resources and sustainable development, and that Zewail's project could help provide Egypt with these trained human resources.

"I believe Egypt should follow in the footsteps of countries that have carried out industrial revolutions to improve their respective economies, such as Turkey, India, China and South Korea," Zewail said.

During the 18 days of the revolution that eventually forced former president Mubarak to step down, Zewail came back to Cairo to join young people in Tahrir Square, adding his voice to those protesting against the former regime.

Many youth movements have suggested his name as a candidate in the coming presidential elections, but Zewail has rebuffed claims that he is intending to run for the presidency, saying that his vision is to put Egypt in the front rank of the world's new economies over the coming 10 years.

"I do not seek position. I am here because I believe Egypt deserves prosperity. We are not inferior to South Korea or Malaysia, which used to be underdeveloped countries," Zewail said in a seminar organised by Al-Ahram.

When asked about education in Egypt, Zewail said education was important but that on its own it was not enough.

"We need to make the most of our sources of revenue, such as tourism and natural gas. Only Egyptians can build this country. We cannot just wait for financial support from abroad."

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