CAIRO—The new president of Cairo University wants Egypt’s flagship higher education institution to be at the vanguard of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s agenda.
Mohamed Osman Elkhosht is sympathetic to President El-Sisi’s drive for what he calls a “new religious discourse” envisioning a contemporary Islam that is open to scientific breakthroughs and tolerant of other faiths.
“I think that Europe has progressed primarily because of religious reform,” Elhhosht said in an interview in August, shortly after taking the helm of Egypt’s largest university. “I see a link between economic and social progress, as well as the advancement of ideas.”
Central to the 53-year-old religion and philosophy professor’s goals is pivoting Cairo University courses from rote memorization to promoting critical thinking. Elkhosht has written 57 books and numerous journal articles establishing him as a leading scholar of Islam who favors an interdisciplinary approach that connects his faith to Western thought.
“Ibn al-Haytham was a ninth-century mathematician who taught here in Cairo that a hypothesis must be proved by experiments,” he said. “A Muslim was the originator of the idea that theories should be based on confirmable procedures or mathematical evidence. But Newton’s theory is taught to Egyptians without illustration of the underlying science.” Instead, he says, teachers emphasize that Newton discovered the law of gravity as a result of being hit by an apple.
A Progressive Islam
That thinking echoes El-Sisi’s vision of a progressive Islam embracing science and technology and giving space to the country’s Coptic Christian minority, said Mahmoud Al-Said, vice dean for education and student affairs and a professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science.
“The most important characteristic of the scientific approach of Dr. Elkhosht is the embrace of critical rationalism as a method of thinking and research, where he combines rationalism and spirituality together in his philosophical vision,” said Al-Said.
But, like President El-Sisi, the new university president’s definition of “progressive” does not mean opening the public square, including campuses, to political organizing. Partisan political activity among both faculty members and students will continue to be taboo at Cairo University.
University officials declared the campus a “no politics zone” in early 2014 after clashes between Egyptian police officers and Muslim Brotherhood supporters resulted in the deaths of two students.
“We facilitate workshops for students and host academic conferences on regional and international issues,” Elkhosht said. “But no political parties can actively work on campus.”
To underscore the continued enforcement of this policy, within days of assuming his post Elkhosht suspended four professors in the chemistry department after they returned from a Muslim Brotherhood conference in Germany.
Few faculty members or students were willing to discuss the “no politics” rule on the record. But Hani Al-Husseini, a mathematics professor who is a member of the March 9 movement that advocates for the independence of the universities, believes the ban is counterproductive. The March 9 movement has called for less political meddling by the central government in universities.
“Real educational reforms depend on academic freedom within the university,” Al-Husseini said. “There are security forces with automatic weapons at the doors of the university. Students are depressed because they are prohibited from practicing any kind of political activity.”
Education Fighting Terrorism
But Elkhosht sees classroom discussion, not protests or partisan political activity, as the place where students should focus. He sees interdisciplinary education as a tool in the political struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood and a prerequisite for Egypt’s development.
“A closed education system causes terrorism because it depends on memorization without comprehension,” he said, referring to primary schools where students memorize passages from the Qur’an with little analysis or discussion.
Elkhosht’s vision, his supporters believe, counters the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto “Hear and obey.”
“One of the first solutions to change the way of thinking and methods of teaching is to change the testing system,” said Elkhosht. As it stands, many courses depend heavily on high-stakes tests focused on students’ ability to remember large amounts of knowledge.
Many other administrators agree with Elkhosht. “To remain a leader in Egypt’s society, teaching and learning in Cairo University should be shifted from traditional aspects toward building communities, economies and patterns of leadership,” said Al-Said, the vice dean.
In a widely publicized incident last year, a third-year arts student died of heart failure after a professor forced her to leave an exam after her mobile phone rang.
“If the exam will test the ability to understand, the student will understand. If the exam tests the ability to analyze and compare, the student will train himself on analysis and comparison. If the exam tests the ability to think critically, the student will study critical thinking,” said Elkhosht. “Modifying the examinations system is a priority.”
An Advocate for Women
As the university’s former vice president for education and student affairs, Elkhosht helped his predecessor create programs against sexual harassment, the first such effort at an Egyptian public university. Now as president, he says he wants to move on from protecting women to advancing them.
Unemployment is 56 percent among Egyptian women with university degrees and that statistic illustrates the need for gender-neutral performance evaluation of faculty members, he said.
“We need not only to confront the idea of harassment but change the Middle-Eastern male perception of women,” Elkhosht said. “Male academics must understand that competition in teaching and research is not related to masculinity or femininity but to efficiency and ability to perform.”
Like his predecessor, Gaber Gad Nassar, Elkhosht is also committed to transforming the campus into to a “smart university” with digital tools for instruction, research and assessment more widely integrated into academic life.
“We’re tackling the resistance to digital technology among the older faculty,” said Elkhosht. “But the private-sector support required to fund this effort will only materialize in tandem with a commitment to becoming an industry-relevant technology incubator.”
Elkhosht wants to transform Cairo University into a “third generation” academic hub that shepherds research into innovative technologies and economic growth. That would contrast with what it has often been viewed as in the past—a training center for future government employees.
“We want a student who has the ability to solve problems and take initiative for himself,” said Elkhosht. “This road is the only way to cultivate the kind of leaders needed to create the small and micro enterprises that will drive economic growth.”
Elkhosht thinks European and North American governments should join Egyptian and international companies in supporting his plans for incubator institutes at Cairo University.
“We will change the curricula to teach students how to rely on themselves and create new jobs here in Egypt,” he said. “If they can create jobs for themselves, they will not think about emigration. When citizens of the Third World have opportunities in their own countries, they are less likely to become an immigration burden on Western nations.”