CAIRO—Reversing a long sought-after policy that gave faculty in Egypt’s public universities the right to elect their presidents, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will now appoint top academic leaders.
Deans will also be appointed by the former-army-chief.
Critics slammed the shift, which was declared this week in a presidential decree, as a move that squashed recent gains made in favor of university independence, while backers welcomed it as a positive alternative to the previous policy.
“It’s a very strange and bad and undemocratic decision,” said Hany El Hosseiny, an assistant professor in the faculty of science at Cairo University and a member of the March 9 movement, which advocates for university independence.
The decree challenges the independence of universities both in content and the way in which it was issued, he said. It not only grants people outside the university the authority to decide internal university affairs, but the decision was made without consultation, he added.
Public universities in Egypt began electing their presidents following the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, fulfilling a long-standing demand among some university members for more independence of higher-learning institutions. (See related article “The March 9 Movement Faces New Challenges.” )
Now, university presidents—as well as deans—will be appointed by Egypt’s president, who chooses them from among three candidates selected for each position by a special committee and presented by Egypt’s higher education minister, according to Egyptian news media. The leadership candidates will submit their plans for developing the university. University presidents will be appointed for four years, their appointments can be renewed and Egypt’s leader will hold the power to remove university chairmen from their posts if requested to do so by a higher committee.
Some viewed the change as positive and a good alternative to electing university heads, which some said amplified petty departmental politics, reduced leadership to popularity contests and divided professors.
“It is clear that the elections mechanism produced the worst options in light of partisanship and coalitions within universities,” Hanan Guneid, professor and head of faculty at Cairo University’s Mass Communications’ English Department, told the Daily News Egypt, an English-language newspaper.
For others, the shift signals a loathed swing back to a Mubarak-era policy—or worse, since the Egyptian president can now appoint deans, which was not the case under Mubarak. “In that sense this is a much more serious encroachment on the independence of universities,” said Khaled Fahmy, chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo.
He, like others, views the policy shift as another loss of gains won with the 2011 Egyptian uprising. Before this week’s decree, police—long considered by many a repressive tool of the state—had already been allowed to enter some campuses over the past ten months after being expunged from them following Mubarak’s ouster.
“Needless to stay, this step in not taken in isolation,” Fahmy said. “This is part of a much larger effort to systematically close down the public sphere.” Speech and media freedoms are being restricted, an anti-protest law has landed demonstrators in jail and the government is allegedly planning to monitor social media. “This is a serious step that is part of a much larger government policy,” he said, “and it is in anticipation of the resumption of the academic year in September.”
The president of Ain Shams University, Hussein Eissa, indicated support for appointments. He told privately-owned television channel Sada El Balad that universities in 99 percent of countries appoint university leadership, and that universities are not syndicates or clubs where heads should be elected, but rather academic and scientific institutes whose leaders need to be chosen carefully.
A researcher in the academic freedom program at the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. Mohamed Abdel Salam, objected to that logic. “In the world, too, the executive authorities or governments don’t interfere in university issues,” he said.
Moving from a system of elections to one of appointments “is always a negative move, because we know that in the past appointments were not done in a transparent manner and were subject to security regulations,” said Randa Abou Bakr, a professor in the English department at Cairo University.
Moreover, the decision to elect university presidents and deans was made three years ago by faculty members and passed through the ministry of higher education before receiving cabinet approval, she said. “So it’s unacceptable,” she added, “that the president would change that without going back to the people who made the decision in the first place.”
El Hosseiny, the science professor at Cairo university, views Tuesday’s decree as a power play by the president and the former higher education minister, who he says have interest in a system that appoints university presidents and deans in light of anti-government unrest that has seethed on campuses since September. “They try to find reasons for that and ways to control students,” said El Hosseiny. “So they pushed in this direction.”