The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged universities
How teaching in English divides the Arab world

I have a new piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the spread of English at universities in the middle east. This is a world-wide phenomenon, and the main reason for it is that working in English helps academics access the latest research and to publish (because most journals are in English). It also often helps students land better jobs after graduation. And there are other more ambiguous gains to English: access to Western culture generally, a different and often more open teaching style (since more professors might be foreign), and a general aura of "modernization." 

New private colleges that teach in English are popping up, while public universities have made English the language of instruction for certain fields — particularly scientific ones — or sometimes on the whole campus.

But the enthusiasm for English isn’t universal. Skeptics note that switching to English does not solve all the underlying problems of troubled educational systems. Some see the turn away from their native language as a threat to Arab identity. Others worry that English-language education exacerbates the divide between the haves and have-nots. For a small minority of graduates, like Mr. Hamdy, English is the gateway to the global economy. But millions more are left behind.

”English is a divider but also a dream,” says Deena Boraie, dean of the School of Continuing Education at the American University in Cairo.

The hopes and misgivings about the spread of English in the Arab world illustrate the tensions that surround the world’s most widespread lingua franca. Even universities in the United States have something to lose, says Rosemary C. Salomone, a professor of law at St. John’s University, in New York, who is writing a book about the spread of global English. The complacent belief that the whole world speaks English leads to less study of foreign languages and less curiosity about the rest of the world.

The English language is “washing over the world,” says Ms. Salomone. Many countries fear an “erasure of [their] culture and loss of global status.”

I reported in Qatar, Egypt and Morocco, and there are some big variations -- in the Gulf the concerns regarding English are tied up with anxieties about identity, being a minority in one's own country and the pace of change. In Egypt English has theoretically been part of the curriculum and a language of instruction for decades but the real problem is the abysmal quality of education, growing privatizations, and the gap between rich and poor (which foreign language universities and programs can exacerbate). In Morocco there is a growing interest in introducing English -- something that is somewhat surprising given that the country is already dealing with a very complicated post-colonial linguistic tangle, with the educational system divided between Arabic and French and with the place of darija (the local dialect) and Berber languages (recently recognized) to be ascertained. In all countries the feelings about languages taught and used at schools are of course passionate, because they are feelings about identity and the future opportunities of one's children. 

The piece is behind the paywall. For those interested (in this and other coverage of scholarship, ideas, academia, including my own reporting on the Arab world and the debate over rules on sexual conduct, feminism and freedom of speech on campus triggered by this essay), think about subscribing. 

Universities on fire in Egypt

Another Al Azhar student has reportedly died in clashes with police. I just wrote something for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the unrest on Egyptian campuses (it is behind a paywall).

El Watan video of police firing tear gas and bird shot into Al Azhar university

The Islamic university of al-Azhar, which has its main campus in Cairo, has close to half a million students. The university is a historic center of learning in the Arab world and is where most preachers in the country are trained. Various Islamist groups are active on the campus and in the student union; they blame the university's leadership for supporting the military coup. In late October the administration asked the police enter the campus to quell protests, which has resulted in a running battle.

Police forces have surrounded the university and fired tear gas inside; they have raided dormitories and classrooms. In clashes between students and the police, students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails; the police fired bird shot at them. A dozen students were given 17-year sentences on charges of rioting and trying to break into administration buildings.

At Cairo University, a freshman engineering student named Mohamed Reda was shot and killed on November 28 in a clash with the police at the university gates. Mohamed Ibrahim, the Egyptian minister of the interior, defended the conduct of the police, saying that the students had blocked traffic and thrown stones at policemen. He also claimed that Mr. Reda had been killed by fellow students.

Gaber Nassar, the university's president, issued a statement condemning the security forces' "direct attack" on the university and the College of Engineering. The college's student union called the interior minister's statement a "fabrication." Clashes between students and the police have escalated since Mr. Reda's death.

Last week the engineering dean and three of his deputies resigned in protest. Sherif Mourad, the dean, told The Chronicle he had done so because he could not "secure the safety of my students." He said that when the police fire tear gas onto the campus, "this is not a learning environment."

The Middle East Studies Association has written an open letter to Prime Minister Beblaway calling on him to halt the violations of academic freedom at Egyptian universities. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and NGO that follows academic freedom, has documented clashes and abuses at universities across the country since the beginning of the Fall semester. 

An all-out brawl between female Azhar students and security guards armed with sticks.

Trouble on campus

According to the minister of education, if you knew what is going on in Egyptian universities, you would faint. As a frequent university goer, I can assure you that you wouldn't. In all likelihood, you would just lose body moisture and tolerance of others.

His remark was addressed to the “trembling hand” that is the government that is Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, whom talk shows have been taking aim at for not trying hard enough to stop everything from getting worse. (Presumably they are doing this to salvage some pretense of objectivity and because it is probably fun to heroically yell at “them,” the unnamed people who really are in charge, for not removing the people you disapprove of from their posts.)

One of el-Beblawi’s greatest weakness, many think, is his inability to get universities under control. Since most of the Muslim Brothers lucky enough not to be in prison are in universities, so are most of their protests. (The rest materialize in villages and poor neighborhoods that are easier to ignore and tend to disperse as quickly as they have gathered.) Cairo University Brothers, for instance, protest on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, according to MB youth leader Ahmed Badawi (who recently joined his superiors in prison).

The MB protests usually lead to small counter-protests by smirking pro-Sisi students, which culminates in the protrusion of veins, the stretching of many collars, and occasional injuries sustained while scores of unfazed students shuffle by, hugging books or filming videos that manage to show nothing and explain less.

If one were to graph the number of students protests against apathy towards them, one would have a straight line shooting up to the corner of the page and beyond. And it is more or less the same story everywhere. Some angry students protest. Others disagree. Violence erupts. Security doesn’t intervene due to a committed policy of non-participation in real or potential danger. Flushed, a dean strides in somewhere followed by glaring subordinates. He orders an investigation (a synonym for suspending students, a decision that may or may not be renewed at will, and withdrawing their IDs, denying them entry to campus). Some time later comes an announcement of cameras being installed to record spreaders of chaos in the act.

And then before you know it, there is new security personnel looking into, brushing, waving and nodding at every single student’s bag at forever-decreasing-in-size gates (because if you trickle students into campus, they will be too happy to have finally made it in to wield the weapons security missed when they smiled at their bag) and the administration has destined a number of metal detectors to a state of constant hysteria caused by heavily-accessorized female students. This happened in more or less the same sequence in Ain Shams, Mansoura, Monofeya, Kafr el-Sheikh and Misr International University.

That being said, the university making headlines now is Al Azhar. Earlier this week, around 1400 students peacefully marched out of the university to block and pray on al-Nasr road, where they clashed with the police, which was waiting for them outside. The students were pushed back to campus. Once inside, they lit dumpsters on fire to block the security forces’ vision, then threw rocks at them, broke a few windows and drew some offensive graffiti on the walls, which Gen. Magdy Abbas, the head of security at the university, in a fatherly manner described as a “transgression” not befitting an Azhari student.

After Gen. Abbas hung up with TV presenter Youssef el-Husseiny he was dubbed “Little Beblawi” and wished discharge. Meanwhile, others like Tamer Ameen were reporting the confessions of three female Azhari students to putting on makeup and “red solutions” to make it look they have been attacked by the security forces. This is not the first time Al Azhar’s MB students lied or hurt themselves. Earlier this year in April, after two incidents of mass food poisoning, it was reported that three sheb-sheb-wearing students smuggled the very specific amount of 105 bad tuna cans into the kitchen to make it appear as if the pro-old regime Grand Imam of Al-Azhar is incompetently running a public institution that neglects cleanliness and health.

It is worth noting that Al Azhar is one of the few places were the words “MB stronghold” are accurate. They won essentially every student election in every faculty and according to a 2009 report by Amr Ezzat about how many actually Azhari (i.e. subscribing to Al-Azhar’s standards of Islamic moderation) there are in Al Azhar, it anecdotally ranges between two to three percent of the total number of students.

Apart from demanding the fall of the military regime, the main purpose of these nationwide protests, according to the actual protests, is to free their fellow detained students. Ideally, putting pressure on the college community would pressure on the administration and by extension the government, which will then be forced to release the students to shut everyone up. This admittedly long process is made worse by student indifference and the believed-to-be deliberately inadequate non-MB-dominated student unions, who don’t feel the need to halt classes to embarrass administrations and the government or even make noises about it just for show.

Also, these protests are thought to be the only way to “stay in the picture” and derive satisfaction from being a thorn in the side of the coup lead and supporters.This brewing hostility manifested itself after Egypt lost 6-1 to Ghana, crushing the chances of qualifying for the pined-after World Cup. MB supporters engaged in celebrations and chants like “The story is not about the MB, the story is about the six goals” (it rhymes in Arabic), which embittered people against them more than their alleged Sinai attacks and the assassination attempt on the Interior Minister combined.

But prior to the unforgivable treason of not supporting the national soccer team, the MB’s persistent “resistance of reality” has only earned them exhausted disdain that later merged with incomprehension from fellow students, most faculty members and the general public. After all, where is the sanctity of a university campus? And what is the point of student unions anyway? They just get kids worked up. They should have lectures, not protests, indignant columnists reassured each other. These protests are not peaceful, they add - which is not always untrue. While protesters usually don't start out to physically harm others, they sometimes intentionally provoke confrontation to escalate the situation, out of a commonly held, but not well-articulated, belief that nothing happens unless someone gets hurt. Casualties can become the price of attention.

The wave of student protests has also raised the curious and confusing issue of granting security personnel in universities judicial seizure authority, which the deputy head of Cairo University roughly explains would mean transferring investigative authority from the police to campus security. So, now when a student goes to college with say a kitchen knife, instead of handing him over to the police, whose job it is to investigate and fight crime, the on-campus security can investigate the person, which would save his/her some trouble -- says the Cairo University official. First, they don’t have to deal with potential mistreatment in the police station -- it will be outsourced to universities -- and if the students break the law on some kind of police-only holiday, they won’t have to spend the night in jail until the prosecution gets back to work. It is not like this raises extra questions such as:  How long can you keep a student for investigation? Will there be a mini-jail in universities in case the investigation takes more than a day? What happens based on the result of the findings? Where in the world is the legal text of this not-law law? etc, etc. Not to mention that removing police from campus was the key pre-revolutionary demand of politicized students and faculty groups such as March 9.

If there is one thing we know about the judicial authority transfer, it is that the former allegedly MB-affiliated minister of education, under deposed president Morsi, merely requested it on June 4. Nothing indicates whether or not it was accepted and all the ministry of justice has done is deny granting it, while state-run Al-Ahram published reports bemoaning its absence in universities like Al-Azhar, where apparently it could have been used to investigate students into submission, demonstrating the importance of government coordination.

Recently, the current education minister admitted to not having any idea where this law that is not a law come from and added that while he personally thinks it’s useless, it is still up to the Supreme Council of Universities to decide what to do about it, although the ministry of justice has supposedly not given them an "it" to discuss in the first place. More importantly, since everyone is so keen to note that the not-law law was a fruit of Morsi and his unconscionable terrorists’ reign, why is there any controversy at all about whether or not it should exist, if it does? 

Lessons from Egypt's student elections

To follow up on last week's news about a Brotherhood routing in student elections, we sent Nour The Intern to Ain Shams university to see what happened exactly and what lessons might be drawn for national elections.

“(The Brothers) can't have the presidency and the student union," happily exclaimed a dentistry student at Ain Shams university, Shaymaa Hosny. 

According to recent results of student elections and the commonly outspoken sentiments against the Muslim Brotherhood in universities; Hosny is not alone.

"Students didn't just vote for the not-MB candidates only because they're not-MB," argued Amany Bahgat, a Masr Al Kawia 2nd year candidate in Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, "but also because not-MB candidates had actual work plans."

Masr Al Kawia Party (Strong Egypt, centrist Islamist party founded by former Brother and presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh) has been working on its campaign and forming alliance with Al-Destour (social democratic party founded by Mohamed ElBaradei), and others, since January, Bahgat explained. She speculates that the reason why the MB did so poorly - aside from their popularity dip thanks to Morsi's blunders - was because the MB's youth, unlike all the other parties, didn't put much effort into their campaign and lacked a solid program.

The results of the elections were surprising to many, particularly in major universities like Ain Shams where the MB lost in 13 (out of the 15) faculties, some of which they failed to win any seats. However, Mahmoud Kandil, an ex-Muslim Brother, wasn’t in the least bit surprised. They lost because they got arrogant, he said.

"The Brotherhood was never inclusive, but it was cooperative... During Mubarak's era, (the MB) used to work with the Revolutionary Socialists and April 6th against the NDP," he noted, but now that NDP has been reduced to an almost parasitic and persecuted existence as “feloul,” in addition to the MB’s electoral winning streak; the Brothers have lulled themselves into a false sense of security.

That false sense of security lead them to believe there was no pressing need for campaigning, particularly when their opponents were seen as likely to boycott, or at least fail to provide an actual alternative to them, like the MB's older opposition.

Ironically, the MB's student opposition did in fact consider a boycott — which would have certainly resulted in a slam-dunk win for the MB — to object to the Egyptian Student Union’s (an entity created, headed and dominated by the MB) new regulations, which were not put to a referendum despite the absolute lack of consensus upon them — not quite unlike the constitution.

These regulation included rules such forbidding activities or seminars without the permission of the Department of Youth Monitoring and Welfare, which raised Brotherhoodization concerns since positions in that department are held by the Dean’s direct appointment, who is appointed by the Supreme Council of Universities. So if one was to infiltrate the Council, which already has some MB-sympathetic and anti-MB members, managed to appoint an MB, then the MB, by extension, has complete control over every single study activity. But since the appointments are customarily based on seniority and the MB lost its foothold in universities, that’s no longer a pressing concern. Nonetheless, there are now talks about possible MB protests against the new regulations, drafted and passed by them, which, now that the power balance has shifted, they suddenly realize are unfair.

The regulations passed by the ESU prove that the MB didn't expect to lose, Kandil asserted. "Why would the MB-dominated ESU give student unions the power to ban any student activity or cancel any event with just one third of the votes, if the MB didn't expect to win?" he asked, rhetorically.

However, others attributed the MB's loss to their failure to form alliances, despite trials with Al-Wasat (moderate Islamist party founded by ex-Brothers in the 1990s) and Salafis, a failure that could simply be an extension of the rekindled political animosity between the Islamists. Whereas new political forces such as Masr Al-Kawia, which is still lacking in organization, easily paired up with El-Destour (which is also still lacking in organization), popular currents, independent candidates, etc, “because they form alliance based on skills and qualification rather than just political agreement” and “want to ensure that the university is for everyone," according to the Masr Al Kawia candidate, Bahgat.

Meanwhile, the MB's default response to the election results was to act cool.

"Success was our ally, Thank God," wrote an intentionally-nonchalant MB spokesman, Ahmad Araf, on Facebook, before he accused the media of presenting the numbers in a way to make it look as if the MB has lost miserably, when it actually lost humbly. Using al-Minya University as proof of the MB's "success," Araf presented his main argument to prove MB’s continued electoral dominance: "(MB) ran only for 50 percent of the seats...and it got 54 percent!" (of that 50%... in that one university... which is full of Brothers).

Media coverage of the student elections, particularly from MB critics, portrayed the student elections as an indication of a decline in MB popularity — which can't be disputed, but is nonetheless exaggerated, since many students, as Bahgat put it, were unaware of the elections, yet alone involved. Furthermore, the MB was not so much popular previously as the most likely group to capture protest votes.

“People didn’t necessarily love the MB, we felt sorry for them,” said Tanta University graduate, Amr Youssef. The MB lost sympathy rather than popularity. One of the biggest reasons why the MB dominated SU elections during Mubarak’s time, although results were forged often, was because of how ill-treated MB students were.

“(State Security officers) used to arrest the MB students (to torture them) in February and let them go in May, right before their finals so they’d fail,” Youssef explained. “Sometimes, they’d arrest them during May and they had to attend their exams in cuffs,” he added. A famous case of that common practice is Dr. Youssef al-Qaradawi, who was once released after a long arrest the night before his finals, but still managed to be first in his class.

Apart from robbing the MB students off their dignity and time to study, MB students generally received an especially bad treatment from security personnel and faculty members. So much so that in 2006, MB students, having been bullied enough, struck back with a martial arts demonstration in Al-Azhar university, where intimidating students showed off high they can kick to send a message; MB can stand up for itself, if need be. The affair ended up sending Khairat Al-Shater and other senior Brothers to prison for financing the then-banned MB and its youth. Therefore, voting for them in elections, which were mostly between the MB and the NDP,  was the least fellow students could do in solidarity.

MB critics now fancy the recent student union elections to be a sign of the MB's performance in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

"That's entirely untrue," said Dr. Ahmed Abu-Rabou, a Comparative Politics professor at Cairo university. "Sabahi and Abou El-Fatouh topped all the university polls, prior to the presidential elections, but the run off was between Morsi and Shafik! Let that be a reminder to everyone," he added. Dr. Abu-Rabou went on to argue that support for the MB and education are inversely proportional, thus "MB loses badly when it comes to the educated youth."

“These results should humble the MB, and teach the opposition," said Ain Shams student voter, Ahmed Gamal, who compared the MB's electoral loss to Morsi barely winning the elections against Shafik; "both are evidence that (MB) is not invincible." He added that “the wise old men” of the opposition should now sit down and take notes, "because "the shortsighted youth" not only faced the MB, but united, ran, despite the MB-imposed flawed regulations, and won."

"The wise old men need glasses," he added derisively, before advising them to abandon their reactive policies, the boycott, and "work for Egypt, not just against the Brotherhood."

Universities in Iraq

I was traveling last week so I didn't get around to posting this when it came out, but I recently wrote an article about Iraqi universities and the challenges they face for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The article is behind the subscription wall, but here's the beginning:

Eight years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a few months after the withdrawal of the military forces from the country, Iraq's universities, devastated by years of dictatorship, sanctions, and war, are still struggling to recover. The security situation has improved since the deadly, dark days of 2006 and 2007, when the country teetered on the brink of sectarian war, hundreds of professors were assassinated, and thousands more fled the country.

Today some of those refugee scholars have returned. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has a bigger budget and new, ambitious plans. Iraqi universities are looking to the outside world, hoping that international partnerships will help them reform their curricula and retrain their staffs. The government is investing more in public scholarship programs to send thousands of graduate students to study abroad and make up the country's new teaching cadres.

On the other hand, Iraqi universities remain highly centralized, politicized, and in need of systemic reform. The country is ruled by parties representing Iraq's Shiite majority, which was discriminated against under Saddam Hussein. But today, Sunnis and secular Shiites worry that academic standards and freedoms are still threatened by sectarianism and religious and political ideology—just in reverse. They complain of discrimination and say that university appointments are being made on the basis of religious affiliation and political connections rather than academic qualifications.

"Before, the Baath Party was controlling all universities, and you had to be a high party official to be university president or dean," says Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of gender studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, who has worked on several efforts to connect Iraqi academics with their counterparts in the region. "Now each political party controls a university—the only pluralism is the plurality of dictatorial parties that are using the same methods to exert control."

The four major universities in Baghdad, for example, are each headed by a president that represents a particular political party or faction. I don't know Iraq well, but if the universities are anything to go on, the new, "democratic" country touted by US officials is a deeply dysfunctional one where sectarianism and the threat of violence shadows everything in a very oppressive way. I found it telling that not a single Iraqi academic who is currently inside the country would speak to me on the record.