Public universities in Egypt were never considered mere educational institutions. The political significance of their premises was a well-known factor for consideration during Mubarak's regime, with police units and State Security agents implanted within campuses.
Another fact is that during the rule of the former regime an appointment policy was applied for university administration positions, rather than an elections process. In post-Mubarak Egypt, efforts to combat university corruption are surfacing. Weeding out ex-regime members from the universities administration and replacing the appointment policy with an elections system are priorities among those who call for higher education reform in Egypt.
Shortly after the latest cabinet reshuffle, the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education issued a decision to dismiss all current public university heads, as a step prior to the new elections system through which they will be replaced. However, as a sovereign decision it needed ratification from the ruling military council.
“Upon the ministry’s decision, members of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) conducted a meeting with the current university heads, and up until now the SCAF has not yet ratified the dismissal decision. Current university heads — many of them members of the former National Democratic Party (NDP) and closely linked to the old regime — are seeking to hinder the ratification, and it appears as though they are succeeding so far. What kind of leverage could they be possessing over the military council so they would affect their decision making?” wonders Yahia Al-Qazaz, professor of geology in Helwan University and a member of 9 March Movement for Independence of Universities.
The new policy decreed by the Supreme Council of Universities dictates that only university heads who have submitted their resignations or whose term has ended will be replaced through elections. This subjects only 40 per cent of university leadership seats to the election process. Also, the resignations of the heads of Cairo and Helwan universities have not yet been approved by SCAF.
Hani Al-Husseini, professor at Cairo University and another member of the 9 March Movement, told Ahram Online that the movement is about to file a lawsuit against the Supreme Council of Universities for having changed the elections laws which were passed with a majority of votes. They would also include in the lawsuit the council’s decision to postpone the beginning date of the semester. “The Supreme Council for Universities has no jurisdiction to issue decisions or change laws as its authority is currently frozen because it is only responsible for steering temporary affairs,” adds Al-Husseini.
In a TV phone interview last week, current minister of higher education, Moataz Khorshed, mentioned that he had contacted members of the 9 March Movement to arrange a meeting, but Hani Al-Husseini denied that Khorshed had contacted anyone in the movement for that meeting. “The problem is that even Moataz Khorshed cannot intervene because the laws have been mixed up,” comments Al-Husseini.
Recently, the ministry also announced it would outlay additional resources on staff salaries, but university professors have not been included within the new scheme, which added to the dissatisfaction they felt. The salaries of public university tuition staff have long been a source of contention with professors saying that the levels of remuneration are inadequate to their level of qualifications. Increased disapproval will doubtless lead to wider participation in case a strike is announced, which is something Hani Al-Husseini is strongly expecting.
The 9 March Movement, meanwhile, will be holding a press conference on 11 September to announce its demands in terms of eliminating corruption and increasing salaries. The floor for candidacy will be open on available administrative seats on 12 September. Yahia Al-Qazaz concludes that the date was chosen following the press conference, as means of testing the echoes of the event.
Deliberations are ongoing among 9 March Movement members and other groups, amid silence on the part of SCAF and the ministry. The possibilities of announcing a strike seem to be increasing the longer this silence lasts.
A strike could be announced at the beginning of the fall semester, bringing it to a halt, especially that university employees are also contemplating a strike. Hani Al-Husseini has confirmed that coordination between 9 March Movement members and university employees is in process.
More than 9 thousand university teacher annouced that they will fully support and participate in the upcoming strike if this is what they have to do to prove that they are serious about their demands.