Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 September 2012
Issue No. 1113
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Zewail versus students

After an 18-month delay, promises and counter-promises, the Nile University versus Zewail City of Science and Technology saga continues, writes Sarah Eissa

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: the Nile University premises; the sit-in; a student cleaning up; during the construction phase; students say the NU name is all over the place even on sewer covers

Students at Egypt's private Nile University (NU) began an open-ended sit-in last Saturday, saying that they were prepared to continue their protest on the university's campus, which they are officially not allowed to enter, until their demands are met. The students said the sit-in, started when university authorities did not respond to them, was an act of last resort. They face an uncertain future since the land on which the Nile University sits was granted last year to Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian scientist Ahmed Zewail to establish the Zewail City of Science and Technology (ZCST).

Nile University is a non-profit, privately-owned and autonomously-managed institution of higher learning, founded in 2006. Students at the institution have been waiting to move in for some time to begin their studies, but have now been told that the ZCST will be using the university's buildings instead. According to the students, the decision on the university's future and to award the land and buildings to the ZCST instead was political motivated. Many parents, professors, clerks, other private and public university students, and some political forces support the sit-in, the students said.

In a statement at last weekend's press conference, the NU students said that despite the fact that they were engaged in a peaceful sit-in, thugs had been sent to attack them. When one of the students and a staff member had gone to the police to ask them to protect the sit-in, they were themselves detained, the students said, with the authorities demanding that the students either end the sit-in or risk continued detention. Six Central Security Forces (CSF) trucks had been seen outside university premises. An officer had asked for the students' names, in order to protect them, he claimed, but the students said that they were surprised to find that the officer reported to retired general Salah Azazi, security director of the ZCST.

At the press conference, the NU students said they were not against the Zewail project, but they did not want to see it take the place of NU. If they were allowed to keep the NU buildings, they would be willing to press the administration to host the Zewail project until the ZCST was able to find buildings of its own. In the meantime, they would not end the sit-in, the students said. After a year-and-a-half of broken promises from previous governments, they said they hoped the new government would support them, allowing NU to use the campus permanently.

During the press conference, students Mohamed Osama and Mustafa Shamaa, the latter a previous NU student union president, announced that they would be beginning a 48-hour hunger strike on Monday if no steps were taken. Shamaa said that the hunger strike was the only way that the students could find to make the government and public opinion pay attention to their plight.

In visits to the sit-in, Al-Ahram Weekly found the students apparently exhausted though enthusiastic about speaking about NU's problem. Ahmed Nassar, present NU Student Union president and a fourth-year computer-engineering student, said that for a year-and-a-half they had wanted to enter the university buildings, which had been built and equipped using university money and donations. However, they had not been able to do so because of decisions taken by former prime ministers Essam Sharaf and Ahmed Shafik, which had allowed the Zewail project to acquire the land, according to Nassar without due legal title.

Over the previous year-and-a-half, the students had protested the decision in front of the People's Assembly (PA), the prime minister's office and the Ministry of Higher Education, he said. With each new minister and prime minister they had made a new stand, also sending petitions to the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the prime minister in person. But all they had received were more promises, he said.

Ahmed Ismail, a research assistant in the software engineering track in the computer and information technology department at NU, said that Masters students would not be able to graduate because there was nowhere for them to put their equipment while the buildings were under legal guard. The equipment had to be kept in a Smart Village garage lab for the time being, he said, where students had been attending classes.

According to Mohamed Ghoneim, a member of the ZCST board of trustees, speaking to the Al-Hayat Al-Youm television programme, the NU students had never entered the university's premises. Ismail disagreed, saying that a graduation ceremony, science fair, and conferences had been held there in conjunction with the Menoufiya and Ain Shams universities. "There are 27 PDF files of photos proving that we have used the buildings," the students said, adding that there was even a scale model of the university on the NU campus. They said that not only had the ZCST tried to take the buildings from them, but it had also taken equipment, computers and books found inside the disputed buildings.

Ghoneim said that the NU board of trustees had surrendered the university's land and buildings to the Ministry of Higher Education and Ministry of Communication on 17 February 2011. In October, the land and buildings had been transferred to the ZCST. To avoid any problems, members of the ZCST administration had met with academic representatives of both universities and had decided to transfer all NU students, researchers and staff to the ZCST. Current students could choose to graduate from either NU or ZCST, he said, adding that it was not possible, however, for the two institutions formally to merge.

NU students Nassar and Ismail said that the intention was to kill NU slowly, inevitably bringing about its closure. Ismail was also concerned about NU workers, "there are more than 200 employees, and we do not want to see them lose their jobs. Transferring the students does not mean that the problem is solved," he said.

"It's an 'acquisition' not a merger," said Dina El-Agami, a fourth-year student in business. El-Agami is one of many students who will be travelling abroad on an exchange programme, and she was worried at the possibility of closure faced by NU. Anyone choosing to work or study at NU believes in the university's mission, she said, and they could not simply abandon the institution in favour of ZCST. Besides, she said, the ZCST project was vague and the institution's specialties were different from those at NU. Ismail and Nassar agreed, adding that Egypt needed both institutions equally.

NU president professor Tareq Khalil said that he had not surrendered the NU's land and buildings to ZCST. "Can anyone give up a university," he asked. "The university has an independent status and was established by presidential decree. No one can simply give it up," he said. In a previous interview with the Weekly, Khalil had explained that NU was established in 2006 as the only non-profit university in Egypt. Following the passage of Law 12/2009 allowing for the establishment of civil universities, the NU was approved in January 2011 by the Supreme Council for Civil and Private Universities. However, due to the 25 January Revolution, the presidential decree was never signed, he said.

This has left the university in the present legal problem, with Menna Syam, a research assistant in the Centre for Informatics, saying that the students were using two buildings in the Smart Village, for which the rent had not been paid. A new campus could not be built as long as the money spent on the present one had not been recouped, she said. Ismail added that over the previous five years, NU had accomplished many achievements, including student Haitham Desouki's winning first prize in the Stars of Science competition. It also had many more ambitious plans, including the development of pilotless airplanes and the application that had won the Google Ibdaa competition. The university also has joint projects with Microsoft and Google, he said.

According to students, there are around 300 post-graduate students at NU. More than 500 former students have graduated, and there are around 88 undergraduates, "Many students have applied to join NU, but have found no places available," El-Agami said. The university offers some 100 per cent scholarships, and Ismail said his scholarship paid him a salary as a researcher, showing that the university was not just for those able to afford its fees. Other scholarships are worth around 50 per cent of fees, he said, with all Masters students having scholarships.

According to Zewail, many professors have come to Egypt specifically to take part in the ZCST project, but Nassar said that professor Yehia Ismail, claimed by Zewail, had in fact been hired by NU. Ismail himself has said that he was employed by both institutions. For the students, Zewail has not shown that he has the right to the land for the ZCST, and they complain of his claiming the 127 acres used by NU. "I don't mind him taking the land, but he should give the buildings back to us," Ismail said. "He is just insisting because of the buildings, and it's not his right to do so," he added.

Ahmed Khalil, a fourth-year business student, commented that the university's server room can only be used by NU professors, as it uses fingerprint recognition. The NU logo was everywhere on campus, he said, even on the sewer covers. "Even the sewage manhole covers bear the university logo," said one of the university security guards, who supported the students' demands. The students had been peaceful in their protests, he said, and had not tried to storm the university.

University president Tareq Khalil said that there were now proposals to look into the issue again by committees of presidential advisors. Meanwhile, the students criticised the information on the controversy carried by some media outlets, showing the Weekly an issue of one state newspaper that they said had published lies about them.

For their part, supports of Zewail last Friday formed a human chain to support the ZCST on the Qasr Al-Nile bridge in Cairo. One of the participants said that they were dreaming of being able to register at Zewail's ZCST. "At first, we were not sure what we could do to support the project, but now we have decided to take active steps. If we do not learn in the ZCST, the next generations will be able to do so," she said.

She said that she did not believe that the NU students had the right to use the buildings. She did not oppose NU, she said, but she wanted to see the completion of ZCST. Why didn't people look towards a bigger dream, she asked, "a complete science city, not a university set up under the previous regime?"

Zewail had not taken the NU buildings, she added. The land had originally belonged to him, and after the Revolution he had been able to enforce his right to it. Ramy Isaac, Cairo coordinator of the Friends of Zewail group, refused to comment on the NU case and its relation to the Zewail project. The projects should not be discussed together, he said.

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