Egypt: A state run for bigwigs

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby , Saturday 20 Oct 2012

Recent incidents show that equality, one of the values of the revolution, is not prevailing in post-Mubarak Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood kowtowing to the country's big shots

While the state does not intercede in some disputes it chooses to decisively intervene in others, which shows its bias towards the “big shots” at the expense of the weak and marginalised. This contradicts the president’s promise in his inaugural speech that everyone is equal in front of the law. It also contradicts the notion of justice that demands bias towards the weak.

Nile University (NU) was established by a presidential decree in 2006 as the first technology university focused on applied research and home-grown technology. It recruited a number of expatriate Egyptian professors and provided them with the environment, infrastructure and necessary tools for their research. Since its establishment, and despite financial shortages, it has produced important research in several fields, such as animal resources, medicine, information systems, industrial technology and others.

The state allocated a plot of land covering an area of 127 feddans in Sheikh Zayed for the university campus. The professors, alongside their academic and research work at the university’s temporary campus at the Smart City, supervised building installations that cost nearly LE4 million from the university’s resources (it is a civil non-profit entity established by a registered foundation for public benefit that is subsidised by the state from the Ministry of Communications), as well as donations, reaching completion in 2010.

When the Civil Universities Law was issued in October 2010, NU — which was founded before the law was issued — applied to become a civil university. The minister of higher education and the Council of Private and Civil Universities approved but the move was delayed because no presidential decree was issued for implementation. In January 2011 classes moved to the university’s main campus.

After the revolution there were new developments. Ahmed Zweil returned to Egypt and declared — just as his name was fading from the Committee of the Wise — that he would revive the Zweil City project that had been on hold for years. At the time, Zweil’s plan was supported by the government of Ahmed Shafiq who asked NU to evacuate the buildings because he could not protect them.

Shafiq then decided to transfer NU’s assets to the Education Development Fund. On the same day, 17 February 2011, the chairman of the Board of Trustees that created NU — not the university itself — unilaterally (without a board meeting) decided to waive the university’s rights to use the allocated land, and then waived all the university’s assets and funds (all these waivers are illegal and not within the powers of the Board of Trustees or its chairman and are still pending judgement before the courts).

The prime minister decided to assign the same land to Zweil City and banned NU students and faculty from entering the university. This resulted in a dispute between the two sides over the land and buildings.

The dispute continues until today and recent escalations highlighted the state’s bias towards the bigwigs. The state’s silence on this land dispute — between a legally existing entity (NU) and a legal nonentity (Zweil City), and the dispute over buildings between a party that raised the funds, designed and supervised completion and another that played no role at all in this — cannot be interpreted as confusion or not knowing what is right. Instead, it is apparently clear appeasement of big shots.

Pacifying the bigwigs is evident in many actions by the state, such as hastily issuing a decision to give Zweil — who does not have a recognised legal entity — rights to the land, and permitting him to raise funds and donations for his city without legal cover. It is also evident in accepting the proposed list of Board of Trustees without revisions (although one of its members is a billionaire who owns a firm where Zweil and another board member work, and he has massive investments in Israel). These are all exceptions that contradict the nature of things in the Egyptian state.

Meanwhile, force is used to end the student sit-it and although the paperwork has been ready for nearly two years, a presidential decree anointing NU as an independent civil university (completely separating it from its founding institution) is not forthcoming. The state has even suggested that other land should be allocated to NU. But this ignores the funds and effort that were invested in the existing buildings.

This is not the only incident demonstrating the state’s bias towards influential players. One week ago, there were clashes in Tahrir Square between groups protesting the president’s performance, his unfilled promises, and parts of the draft constitution, on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters on the side of the president.

The call by the Muslim Brotherhood for protests was unusual. Not only because demonstrations in a democratic system are a tool for objection rather than pro-president events as happens under totalitarian rule (we saw this many times in our countries before and during revolution), but also because the demonstrations were to take place in the same place and at the same time that opposition forces were gathering.

This, naturally, leaves great opportunity for violence and reflects a lack of political and national responsibility by those who organised the protests. It also shows disregard for the blood that would be spilled on both sides.

In such an instance, the state should have intervened and therefore its silence was puzzling. Relevant ministries were silent and did not object to permitting two opposing demonstrations to take place in the same place and at the same time.

Meanwhile, lack of action after the clashes — such as not prosecuting the leaders who called for counter-demonstrations — is reprehensible, especially as many times in the past the state took action against protest instigators when demonstrations disintegrated into violence and vandalism.

There are two explanations for the regime’s attitude towards these two incidents. First, that it does not apply the law equally in order to avoid upsetting the bigwigs, as seen in the example of Zweil, his international stature and support for him in the media which he uses to battle the faculty and students who — despite their scientific accomplishments — are not as established as him. 

The second explanation is that power has quickly and fully consumed the elected president, who can no longer see matters except through the eyes of authority or the rationale of the people on top.

Abu Bakr (may God bless him) said: “The powerful among you is weak in my eyes until he delivers justice; and the weak among you is powerful in my eyes until his rights are granted.”

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