Academic-turned-politician aims to fix engine of state

Mohamed Morsi leaves academy behind to lead Egypt in the post-Spring age. David Matthews reports

July 19, 2012

When he submitted his PhD thesis on the "high-temperature electrical conductivity and defect structure of donor-doped [alpha]-Al2O3" at the University of Southern California in 1982, it is doubtful that Mohamed Morsi thought he would one day become president of Egypt.

Yet less than three weeks ago, the one-time engineering student gave his inaugural address at Cairo University as the elected leader of the country, becoming perhaps the world's second most important academic-turned-politician after Barack Obama.

According to one contemporary of Dr Morsi's from California, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate's scholarly background could help him tackle the parlous state of some parts of Egyptian higher education.

Egypt's public universities are "overcrowded and severely under-resourced in terms of faculty, infrastructure, equipment and learning materials", according to a report, Higher Education in Egypt, published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2010.

The report says that in 2006 the country spent more of its gross domestic product on higher education than the UK (1.1 per cent against 0.9 per cent), but this nonetheless leaves it with less than $1,000 (£650) to spend on each student.

Dr Morsi, who was a member of staff at Zagazig University from 1985 to 2010, signalled during his election campaign that more money for the sector would be forthcoming, although he offered few hard figures.

According to the website of his Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which is part of the Brotherhood, he said in a May television interview that "there are exemplary university professors who deliver brilliant performance" and that "university staff incomes must be raised".

The president has also promised the delivery of a new "state-of-the-art independent university" in the southern city of Aswan.

Liberal thoughts

But Dr Morsi's room for manoeuvre is "very limited" because so much of Egypt's budget is spent on servicing the country's sizeable debts and on subsidies for bread and fuel, said Omar Ashour, director of Middle East studies at the University of Exeter.

Some commentators have argued that the Brotherhood is a neoliberal party that will look to privatise much of Egypt's state. It has for several years contemplated the privatisation of the nation's universities as a way of bringing in extra money, Dr Ashour said.

This would not be motivated by the prospect of collecting extra tuition fees, he added. Instead, privatisation would be a vehicle to "attract investment from the Gulf countries", such as gas-rich Qatar.

But given that many Brotherhood activists are students, the political implications of asking them to pay private fees would be "very damaging", he said. Egyptians might also conclude that "the 1952 revolution brought us free education" but the 2011 revolution ended it, he added.

Any privatisation would represent a volte-face by Dr Morsi, who was reported by his party's website to have said in the May television interview that "free education, at all levels, is a natural right for all Egyptians".

There has been no obvious indication that Dr Morsi - the beneficiary of many votes from liberals in the presidential election, who saw him as a better bet than Ahmed Shafiq, prime minister under deposed president Hosni Mubarak - is about to religiously censor university teaching or segregate lectures by gender.

"He has to reassure people that he is not trying to impose a religious ideology on society," Dr Ashour said.

However, the FJP has pledged to support the "scientific, educational, managerial and financial independence" of Al-Azhar, the university and mosque established in the 10th century, which has more students than any other Egyptian institution. This could be seen as a move to counter any lingering support for the Mubarak regime at the university or as a move against religious scholars at the institution who do not support the Brotherhood, Dr Ashour suggested.

Model researcher

According to Farghalli Mohamed, who was a faculty member at USC and taught Dr Morsi on a graduate course after he started his doctorate in 1978, the president-to-be was an "excellent student researcher".

"Having a president who understands the impact of the sciences on the progress of societies and appreciates the importance of education is a great asset," said Professor Mohamed, who is now professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of California, Irvine.

Professor Mohamed was visited by Dr Morsi "on several occasions" when the latter was a student. He "used to laugh at jokes" and had "big smiles". But now that research has made way for the cares of state, "I feel sad that those smiles are gone," Professor Mohamed added.

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