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New Egyptian Government Gives Academics a Strong Role

The new Egyptian government has tapped the ranks of the country’s academics. But the future looks bleak for an education budget strong enough to produce another generation of talent.

The cabinet of 33 ministers is led by Hazem el-Beblawi, who has worked both as a manager and advisor to financial institutions such as the Arab Monetary Fund and the United Nations and as a professor at the University of Alexandria. El-Beblawi has to his credit an extensive resume as a professor at multiple universities including Cairo University and the University of Southern California.

El-Beblawi’s academic background may explain his decision to give ten ministerial positions to academics. “It seems remarkable that even non-academic ministers hold a master’s degree,” says Jennifer Bremer, an associate professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo.

Yet, these appointments have also received some criticism. “The country needs a team that combines academic and research expertise as well as practical experience in public service and policy-making,” said Bremer. “The new government will not succeed in its difficult task until they have full use of scientific research in Egypt in order to understand the economic and social problems which brought the country to this fragile situation.”

The interim government, formed on July 18, includes several members rooted in the military, as well as 10 people who were ministers under Mohamed Morsi. None of the ministers come from Islamist parties. The interim president’s spokesman said posts would be offered to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, but the group promptly refused.

“It is a quick solution to the country’s political and economical crisis,” said Galal Nassar, managing editor of Al-Ahram Weekly. “The political polarization that we have been suffering from since the overthrow of Mubarak needs a government with experts to professionally manage the affairs of the country. So Beblawi’s choice of ministers with academic expertise only and without any political affiliations is the wisest solution.”

The new government is part of a military-led transition that is supposed to lead to parliamentary elections within six months, when a new cabinet will be appointed.

The presence of women is also strong in the interim cabinet. Women head three ministries, including the powerful information and health agencies.

The leadership of the Ministry of Health and Population was given to Maha el-Rabat, the first female candidate to take this post. She had served as head of the department of public health in the faculty of medicine at Cairo University. “This is a good choice as she has a full understanding of the process of policy-making in the field of public health in Egypt through her work as a consultant to the executive government over the past ten years,” said Wesam Manqula, a public health researcher at the Ministry of Health.

Ahmed Galal will be the minister of finance, an appointment widely welcomed by professionals in economic circles. Galal has a doctorate in economics from Boston University and was an adviser for Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank. He has lectured at several Egyptian universities and chaired the Economic Research Forum, a Cairo-based nongovernmental organization that does economic and policy research.

The new foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, a career diplomat, was the founding dean of the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Cairo and a former ambassador to the United States.

Mahmoud Abou El Nasr will head the ministry of education. Abou El Nasr has more than 50 scientific papers in the field of engineering and four registered engineering inventions. He is also a representative of Unesco for technical education in northern Africa. He earned his doctorate from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom and did some post-doctoral research at Washington State University, in the United States.

Higher education will be led by Hossam Issa, a law professor who had a strong role in the protests that forced Hosni Mubarak to step down in early 2011.

Issa said  on his first day as a minister of higher education that he planned on continuing the push that he and others started in the March 9 Movement, which advocated for university freedom from central government control. “I’ll endeavour to make these institutions really independent,” he said.

His task will be difficult due to the lack of resources available. The budget for universities did not exceed 13.5-billion Egyptian pounds during the year 2011-2012 out of the total government budget of 594 billion Egyptian pounds.

This meager budget is spent on 23 public universities, which enrolled around three million students. According to government statistics, 85 percent of this budget was spent on professors and administrators’ salaries, 10 percent for services, and 5 percent is spent on the “educational process.”

It does not seem likely the budget will increase during the coming five years. “The economic situation is too bad, deficits in the budget exceeded 200 billion pounds,” said Amr Baqli a political analyst, pointing out to the lack of large investments and the low rate of the local currency. “Education will not be a priority for any government during the next five years at least.”

The higher education minister is probably going to work with the new state minister of scientific research Ramzi George who is facing the same dilemma as the scientific research budget in Egypt is not exceeding 1.3 percent of the total national income in Egypt.

George has announced recently that he is going to work hard to link scientific research to the national economic and manufacturing output to improve the quality of Egyptian products, which according to his plan should increase the spending on research.

“The problem is that all previous Egyptian governments have not adopted a strategy for scientific research,” said Bremer. “The new minister has to prepare it based on the needs of society. This requires a cooperation of all ministries.”

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