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Ahmed Zewail: A scientist with a taste for politics

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 3 Aug 2016
Egyptian-American Nobel chemistry laureate Ahmed Zewail (AP)
Egyptian-American Nobel chemistry laureate Ahmed Zewail (AP)
Views: 5224
Views: 5224

At the age of 70, Egyptian born-and-raised scientist Ahmed Zewail passed away following a tough struggle with cancer in his adoptive country, the United States.

The death of the Egyptian-American Nobel Laureate, widely mourned in Egypt, puts an end to the life of a man whose remarkable excellence in science had not denied him a perfect taste for politics -- sometimes in a controversial sense -- and whose life in the US never overshadowed his inevitable association with Egypt, where his body would be laid to rest upon his own wishes.

Born in the Delta region of Egypt, Zewail graduated in the Alexandria University's Faculty of Science with honours in 1967, only one year after a devastating military defeat for Egypt at the hands of Israel that led so many young Egyptians of indeterminate faith to the call of Egyptian nationalism promoted by the country’s charismatic leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Like many other prominent science graduates of his time, Zewail -- who had assumed a teaching job at the University of Alexandria while finishing off his masters degree -- received a scholarship for his Ph.D at the University of Pennsylvania.

This got him started in a long established career of scientific research that took him to Berkeley in the early 1970s and ultimately crowned him with a Nobel in science in 1999 after he demonstrated that it was possible with rapid laser technique to see how atoms in a molecule move during a chemical reaction down to tenths of femtoseconds (fs).

His experiments led to the birth of the research field referred to as femtochemistry, leading scientists to name the late Zewail 'The Father of Femtochemistry'.
Zewail’s Nobel prize introduced him to the Egyptian public as a prominent US-based Egyptian scientist, and he was widely celebrated in the media and in many quarters of Egyptian inteligencia as the symbol of the success that an Egyptian could acheive if afforded the right working conditions.

In interviews given to the Egyptian media after 1999, Zewail always spoke affectionately of his childhood and early youth in Egypt and of his dream for a time when Egypt could reassume its interest in scientific research and development – something that he had said his generation was privy to, unlike other subsequent generations that had grown up after the heydays of the Nasser 'Egyptian dream’ with which he never really associated himself.

By the accounts of those who knew him as young science student at the University of Alexandria and those who had known him in the years following, was never a man to associate himself with anything other than his own scientific work.

“In the US he was an American of Egyptian origin; in Egypt he was an Egyptian who went to the US and make an outstanding scientific breakthrough; elsewhere he is a universal citizen who subscribes to science. This was not a show or deliberate act - it was how he felt and how he perceived himself, or at least thought he should be perceived,” said an old associate of Zewail from the days of the University of Alexandria.

This, perhaps, was why Zewail himself always said he never understood the debate that some critics had in Cairo over his visit to Israel which he always reminded was done in “a scientific capacity” in the early 1990s– something that critics did not digest well

At the end of the day, Zewail was never just a scientist – but a scientist with a public persona.

“He is not your typical Berkeley chemistry professor whose ambitions are confined to the walls of their labs; he is a truly ambitious and perfectly hard-working man who has a natural talent for science but also a perfect taste for success as a value in itself – and yes, you are right, maybe also for fame,” said a US-based Egyptian writer who had met Zewail several times to promote the idea of writing his memoires.

This was not exactly something that Zewail would immediately warm up to – “not so much because he was a private person, although I think he much preferred to keep his private life strictly out of the spotlight, either because he wanted nothing to eclipse his own glory, should their be likes or dislikes to his family, or because at the very end of the day and despite a very long journey of life in the West, deep down he remained this typical Egyptian who would not talk much of his family,” said the writer.

Ultimately, in his off-camera meetings in Egypt with some who amounted to be ‘Zewail groupies’, he never talked much about his life, but instead more about his own persona and his own visions for Egypt.

It was then and there perhaps, said a prominent intellectual who had taken part in the early part of these meetings, that the idea of offering Zewail a prominent public service post in Egypt was first discussed.

The accounts differ a great deal, but most agree on a suggestion made by one of the journalists who liked to be associated with Zewail and almost acted as a self-offered defacto press secretary for the man.

Zewail himself never gave any public recognition with the speculations made about the possibility of his being named anything from the scientific advisor to then-president Hosni Mubarak – especially since he was on advisory board to US president Barack Obama – to prime minister. He only spoke of his scientific affiliations and his interest to help his country of birth find again its way on the path of quality education and scientific research.

For Zewail's critics, this was an outright bluff because he knew that Egypt had almost no budget for scientific research and a terribly insufficient budget for education. However, for his admirers, it was precisely because of this awareness that “someone like Zewail” could have introduced ideas to “help make things possible”.

Ultimately, after a closer association with Egypt in the wake of the 25 January revolution, which was among the voices to have supported publicly as the anti-Mubarak demonstrations were stretching into their second week, Zewail offered the idea of establishing the Zewail Scientific Research Center to fulfill his dream "for Egypt to have centers of excellence where potential researchers could find the right medium for their contributions”.

The project did not commence easily and quickly reached complicated phase with the debate over the government allocation of a venue that had originally been assigned for Nile University in what inevitably led to a court case that shed a relatively unfavourable light to Zewail's otherwise generally bright image.

The case prompted a debate in the press about ‘Zewail's real intentions’ and ‘whether he wanted to serve Egypt or to become a bigger star’. It also prompted a debate on the ‘untold story’ of Zewail’s interest to run for president for Egypt in the wake of the ouster of Mubarak, allowing some voices to suggest that he had come to Egypt with an eye on the presidential seat but failed to raise enough support for a dream for which he would have given up his American nationality.

This plan, however, had been practically vetoed by the relevant authorities at the time who openly told him that he cant opt for the top executive job no matter the conclusion of the Arab Spring.

On record and off record, Zewail himself had repeatedly denied these accounts as the mere assumptions of those who offered them.

Inevitably, two years ago news about Zewail’s spinal cord cancer became public and that took over the debate about a relatively controversial figure even by critics who had, with hardly any tangible evidence, accused him of soliciting good associations with every Egyptian regime in pursuit of personal glorification.

Today, these critics are for the most part gracefully silenced by the sudden news of his not-so-unanticipated death.

The room is rather for those admirers who both did not know the man personally, and were simply impressed by his scientific achievement, or those who knew him and liked his wit and intelligence.

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