Egypt revolt poses a test for American University

Any university likes to brag about prominent alumni. But when they end up taking opposite sides of a revolution on its doorstep, some nimble footwork is required, as the American University in Cairo learned in recent months.

Case in point: a campus building called the Suzanne Mubarak Conference Hall. The revolution abruptly ended her tenure as Egypt's first lady, and AUC — heeding complaints from students and staff — renamed the hall Waleed Building.

Since its founding in 1919 by an American missionary, AUC has been closely identified with Egypt's elite — the upper-class families who provided the country with many of its government and business leaders. Both sons of recently ousted president Hosni Mubarak went to AUC, while his wife got her bachelor's and master's degrees there.

Yet the protest movement that toppled Mubarak abounded with AUC-connected activists and mentors, including throngs of students from the university who joined the mass protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square from Jan. 25 through Feb. 11.

Wael Ghonim, the former Google executive who became the face of the youth-driven protests, has an MBA from AUC. The new, reformist foreign minister, Nabil Elaraby, has served as an AUC trustee; so has another of the protesters' older heroes, Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate for his work with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"We were very prominently and disproportionately represented on all sides," said Lisa Anderson, who took over as AUC's president on Jan. 1.

Three days into the revolt, one of AUC's buildings became a battleground — literally.

Until 2008, AUC's campus faced directly onto Tahrir Square. The university then moved to a gleaming new complex in a distant upscale suburb, but kept its main building on the square — known as The Palace — for various community programs. Uniformed snipers broke into it on Jan. 28 to take positions on the rooftop.

Anderson, who has viewed cell phone videos of the incident, said protesters from the square charged into the building and battled to oust the snipers. By the time AUC security regained control, there was "considerable blood" on the roof and stairwell, and broken glass throughout, according Anderson, who stressed that AUC had not authorized any state security forces to enter the building.

AUC closed completely for two weeks after the revolution started, but Anderson said it was the first university in Egypt to reopen after Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11.

"That's our mission," she said. "We're supposed to be educating."

Since then, AUC has embraced the new Egypt in myriad ways — incorporating the revolution into classroom discussions, hosting public symposiums on the uprising and Egypt's future, launching a project overseen by one of its deans to collect images, artifacts and documents chronicling how members of the AUC community experienced the revolt. vitality

On the new campus, professors and students say post-revolution enthusiasm is rampant.

"I asked my classes, 'Who was at Tahrir Square?' and most of them raised their hands," said Professor Khaled Fahmy, the history department chairman whose two courses trace the history of Cairo and of the Arab world.

"I'm so excited, because of the degree of engagement by my students," he said.

Fahmy got both his undergraduate and master's degrees at AUC in the 1980s before heading off to get a doctorate at Oxford and teach at Princeton and New York University.

He depicted the AUC of his student days as detached from mainstream Egyptian society, attended largely by the young, fun-seeking elite who spoke English or French — not Arabic — at home, and often cruised through to degrees without demonstrating great academic skills.

"Now it's completely different," he said. "We get the best students — the new upper-middle class, not the old aristocracy. They are Egyptian through and through."

However, Fahmy noted that AUC's tuition — which can reach the equivalent of $16,000 a year — remains prohibitively expensive for most young Egyptians. The university is trying to diversify through recruitment and scholarships targeted at students outside affluent Cairo neighborhoods; Fahmy said AUC's future vitality depends on the success of this effort.

Anderson agrees on the need to diversify.

"We still think we're going to be producing the presidents and cabinet ministers and business leaders, but not necessarily from the elite," she said.

For now, the undergraduate enrollment is about 4,760, with 1,124 graduate students. Roughly 90 percent of the students and nearly 60 percent of the faculty are Egyptian; about 30 percent of the professors are American and all instruction is in English.

The new campus covers 260 acres in what not long ago was desert, roughly an hour's drive southeast of the old 9-acre campus in downtown. Built at a cost of $400 million, the light-brown, low-rise complex could pass for a sprawling resort hotel or luxury shopping mall — its buildings are aligned to create a string of large plazas dotted with fountains, booths for student organizations, and umbrella-shaded refreshment stands.

Of the school's female students — 53 percent of the enrollment — some wear head scarves, but most are bareheaded and jeans-clad, in outfits that would fit comfortably on any trendy southern California campus.

Sherine Karam and Mirale Shafie, two 22-year-old communications majors on the verge of graduation, said revolutionary fervor had affected the campus in many ways — employees emboldened to protest for higher wages, students raising new questions about perceived problems such as favoritism.

Shafie said she went three times to the Tahrir Square protests, joining other students from AUC and a range of other universities.

"We were all one," she said.

If the female students are looking for a role model, Anderson could serve as one. A former political science professor at Columbia University, she is the first women to serve as AUC's president.

During a 45-minute interview in her office, overlooking gardens in the foreground and apartments rising in the distant desert, she made clear she takes the gender milestone in stride, having broken barriers throughout her career. She noted that two other universities in Egypt had female presidents before AUC.

In other respects, though, she sees AUC playing a distinctive and potentially vital role in the new Egypt — notably in demonstrating to other universities that campuses can and should be strongholds of free speech, vigorous debate, and creative, independent thinking.

In the pre-revolution era, AUC — though less restrictive than other Egyptian schools — curtailed political organizing by students and generally barred political figures from addressing rallies on campuses. Since Feb. 11, policies have changed — and several emerging leaders, including possible presidential candidates, have spoken at AUC.

"Students have luxuriated in this," Anderson said. "It feels just like an American campus in primary season."

In a sign of respect for the students, Anderson also has launched a review of their complaints about AUC staff members who, before the revolution, allegedly monitored their political activities and informed on them to government authorities. The review is ongoing — and Anderson sees it as part of a broader AUC outlook.

"This is a community accustomed to debate and tolerant of differences, which is unusual in Egypt," she said. "It's one of the assets that graduates take with them for the rest of their lives."

Among the many challenges facing Anderson is a budget deficit, related in large part to the political upheaval.

All of AUC's semester-abroad students from the United States were ordered by their home schools to leave Egypt in January due to safety concerns, costing significant revenue for the university. It has also been saddled with unexpected bills to repair its Tahrir Square building.

More broadly, Anderson said, many students' families are now delinquent with tuition, and requests for financial aid have risen as Egypt's economy falters.

"For AUC and all of Egypt, the revolution is quite expensive," she said. "But it's going to prove to have been worthwhile in the long run. This is a hugely exciting opportunity."

AUC trustee Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel who now teaches Middle East policy studies at Princeton, marveled at the breadth of the university's role — through students, staff and alumni — in the revolution.

"I have this sense," he said, "that AUC actually inculcated some values that made them want to take some control of their lives."