University Professors in Egypt Stage Open Sit-in, Call for Reform

Hundreds of university professors are staging a sit-in at over a dozen campuses across Egypt to call for the ousting of university administration officials appointed by the former Mubarak regime and to replace them with elected representatives.

"We are calling for democracy that is part of the revolution that started on January 25th," says Khaled Sameer, an assistant professor of cardiac surgery at Ain Shams Medical School and the spokesperson for the Unified Coalition for the Independence of Universities.

After months of campaigning for change with no tangible results, professors decided to begin the sit-ins, many in front of the university presidents' campus offices, on July 3. With end-of-year exams underway, they decided not to stage a full-on strike and are continuing to work but say they will not end protesting until demands are met.

The principal call is for university presidents, deans of faculties and their deputies to be removed from office by the end of the school year - just three weeks away - and be replaced with administrators selected through a democratic process. For years, deans of universities and heads of departments were elected to their posts but that all changed in 1994 when the ruling National Democratic Party canceled all administrative elections. "Democracy was completely killed in 1994," Sameer says.

For the past 17 years, university heads have been appointed by the government who then selected deans and vice deans throughout the school. The selection process was overseen by the State Security branch of the Interior Ministry, which chose people based largely on their loyalty to the regime. Senior university officials acted as an extension of the ruling National Democratic Party within higher education, furthering regime policies and containing any growing opposition movements - socialist, Islamist, or otherwise - among the student body.

More than five months after the Egyptian revolution began, nearly all of the Mubarak-appointed university administrators are still in office.

"The demand for elected administrators is an old demand," says Laila Soueif, an assistant professor of mathematics at Cairo University who is taking part in the sit-in. "Certainly after the revolution no one is willing to accept an administration appointed by the ministry and president for reasons that have nothing to do with academic criteria."

On Sunday, the day the protest began, the Council of Ministers of the post-Mubarak transitional government issued a new law fulfilling some of the protesting professors' demands, including the dismissal of all current university heads by Aug. 1. The law - which amends Law 49 of 1972 - would also stipulate new regulations for appointing administrative officials, though the details of the process remain unclear. The decree still needs to be ratified by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces before going into effect. "These guys are in retreat, they are fighting a completely losing battle," says Soueif. "They're just making it as difficult as possible for everyone, but I'm dead sure we will be successful."

Some professors say if the proposal to elect new administrators is indeed democratic they will end their sit-in yet continue to push for further education reforms. Chief among their other demands is transparency in university budgets and for administrators to make public financial records for the last three years, including all salaries and bonuses paid to university presidents and other senior administrative officials.

"We don't know what was being spent but the numbers we hear are horrific," Soueif says. "The highest any professor makes is in the area of $1,500 per month and these guys are making 50 times that. It's really ridiculous. They have this money to throw around to people who are loyal to them so you end having a completely corrupt system."

Professors are also calling for higher pay, an increase in funding for scientific research and for government spending on higher education to be increased to 2.5 percent of the national budget.

The professors see their protest as part of the larger struggle for revolutionary change in Egypt. On July 8, hundreds of them will gather in Zamalek, and march as a group across the Kasr El Nile bridge and into Tahrir Square to take part in the mass planned protest that is being dubbed the "Friday of Persistence."

Those leading the sit-in are certain of success in achieving significant reforms to Egypt's higher education system. "We are sure that we will have our rights," Sameer says. "It's not only hope, it's a fact."

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