Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Sisi and the Bibliotheca trustees

In a frank discussion with the trustees of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, President Al-Sisi appealed persuasively last week for friends of Egypt to lend a hand, writes Mohamed Salmawy


Last Thursday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s board of trustees of which I am a member. After the meeting, Emil Constantinescu, the first non-communist president of Romania after the fall of the Ceausescu regime in 1996, told me that he had met many heads of state but rarely had he met one who addressed a meeting so frankly and spontaneously that you are immediately convinced by his sincerity and won over to his point of view.
The president spoke for nearly an hour to the international figures who make up the board of trustees. The topics of discussion varied according to the questions they posed, although here I will focus on three particular subjects that, in spite of their importance, have not received sufficient attention on the part of the press and media that were covering the meeting.
The first is educational reform, which I felt important because a board of trustee member had mentioned to me that he faulted Egypt for ignoring that vital issue. In his response to a question on this subject during the meeting, President Al-Sisi underlined that he was fully aware of the importance of education and that it was being accorded the highest priority. However, he pointed out that during recent years, Egypt has been preoccupied with the struggle to safeguard the state from the collapse that struck other countries in the region and with the need to meet the pressing day-to-day needs of the Egyptian people who now number 104 million.
He presented some facts and figures concerning the huge budgetary demands of educational reform in Egypt. More than 22 million students are enrolled in the various levels of education. This is more than the whole populations of some UN member states. How much does it cost to educate them all? LE 220 billion was the figure he mentioned. He then noted that one of the means to improve university level education was for Egyptian universities to enter into twinning programmes with universities abroad. “Do you know how much just this one item in our educational budget costs?” he asked. He supplied the surprising answer: “Universities abroad ask $40 million from us for these twinning programmes. How is a country that — and I’m not embarrassed to tell you this — finds it difficult to ensure food on the table for all its people supposed to come up with that kind of money?”

What role could the international community play in this regard? He turned to former Finnish President Tarja Halonen, who served from 2000 to 2012, and said, “you, in Finland, have the best educational system in the world. Why don’t you help us in this domain? Egypt is ready to build new schools throughout the country, but what about the academic curricula, such as yours, that are praised the world over? What about teacher education and training programmes? We’ll build the schools if you take care of the rest.”
Former president Halonen said that she would speak with her country’s ambassador in Cairo about what can be done in this regard in the framework of the aid programme to Egypt.
The president, in his frank exchange with the Bibliotheca’s board of trustees, added a poignant illustration. An indigent man and his son were sitting at the side of a road. The son was hungry and asking for kebab. Wealthy passersby would take pity on the son and ask the father, “why don’t you get your son some kebab?” But they offer him nothing to enable him to fulfil his son’s wish.

Boris Tadić, who had served as president of Serbia from 2004 to 2012, asked President Al-Sisi his prognosis on the future of this region in light of the onrush of changes. Al-Sisi responded that the region was passing through a transitional phase characterised by unprecedented turmoil due to the huge upheavals that are taking place daily and that increaåsingly appear to be propelling this region towards war. In such a situation it is impossible to predict anything but destruction, he said, adding: “As occurs in wars, we will see new borders drawn and three countries will turn into five.”
Former president Tadić observed, “if you want to know the future of this region, look at those who spent the last seven years in refugee camps. What will happen when all those people return to the world. How will they contribute to shaping Arab realities in the near future?”
No one commented.

In the course of a discussion of cultural issues, Margaret Catley-Carlson, a member of the UN secretary general’s Advisory Board, described the Bibliotheca Alexandrina as an “Egyptian institution but a world property”. Al-Sisi, in turn, said that the Bibliotheca would serve as the model for the major cultural centre that is currently under construction in the new administrative capital and that will also include a new opera house.
The president took the occasion to underscore to the members of the Bibliotheca’s board of trustees the role of women in Egypt. That 60 per cent of those who voted in the last presidential elections were women, this was testimony to Egyptian women’s patriotism and sense of duty, he said. He also noted that Egyptian women were proving themselves superior in virtually every field and that he had cautioned male officials that this excellence would soon enable women to replace them in the highest positions. He confided that he was seriously contemplating putting the face of an Egyptian woman on the new Egyptian currency.

On the topics of concern to the Egyptian people, one of the board of trustees noted that the younger generations resented the fact that the drafters of the new Egyptian constitution had limited the term of the president to two. President Al-Sisi responded that such a notion suggests that Egypt lacks talent, which is not true. Egypt is full of people with outstanding abilities, he said, and concluded: “Egypt is teeming with many like me and with many who are better than me, as well.”

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