The Man in Cairo University’s Hot Seat
Gaber Gad Nassar became president of Cairo University—which with its quarter of a million students is one of the largest universities in the world—during one of the most tumultuous periods in Egypt’s history.
Like other Egyptian public university presidents who have come to power since the 2011 revolution, Nassar was elected. He was voted into his office in June 2013 in a run-off vote, winning by a one-point margin. As the new academic year approaches, Nassar is introducing some sweeping changes, such as banned party-affiliated student political activity on campus. Some observers accuse him of restricting freedom, while others praise him for taking decisive measures to protect the university.
Nassar, an expert on constitutional law, is a veteran scholar and administrator. At 52, he has spent his entire adult life at Cairo University. He completed his education there, began his faculty career as a professor of public law and separately ran a private legal practice. He has worked in student affairs, the legal department, training and development and been head of the university’s Human Right’s Center. He has only lukewarm support in some factions of the faculty. “For many of us, he was only the best of the candidates with a chance of winning,” says Hani Al-Husseini, a mathematics lecturer.
Al-Husseini, a leading member of the March 9 Movement, which advocates for the independence of universities, has become a critic of Nassar’s tenure. “He has yet to offer any new ideas on academic development or enhanced research… He promised more open dialogue with students and faculty, but has failed to deliver when this promise was tested,” says al-Husseini. He noted the expulsion of over 94 Muslim Brotherhood student members for their roles in rioting during the 2013-2014 academic year.
For others, Nassar represents the best way forward. “He was always a practical and self-consistent reformist,” says Wael Kortam, the head of the Business Administration Department in the university’s Faculty of Commerce. “Cairo University presidents who come from a legal background tend to fare better.” Given the difficult circumstances, says Kortam, “It’s good that we were even able to finish the school year.”
While Cairo University has dropped slightly in most international university rankings, Kortam says that over the past year, research and publication has been enhanced. In the commerce faculty alone, research published internationally went up to 200 papers from 50 the year before, Kortam says, due in large part to Nassar’s initiatives.
In an interview with the independent daily newspaper Al-Shorouk, Nassar said he has formed a committee led by a former higher-education minister, Hussein Khaled, to develop the university’s research.
To Nassar and his supporters, the 2013-2014 academic year was all about security. After nearly a year of constant clashes among students and between students and police, Nassar decided this past week to ban all campus political activism. Along with other Egyptian public universities, he has delayed the beginning of classes, in part to put more security measures in place especially in university dorms. Those include more closed-circuit television cameras, police dogs and improved coordination among security forces. He oversaw the reinstatement of official police forces stationed within his universities. But he criticized the Interior Ministry’s excessive use of violence during riots in December 2013 that led to the death of a student, Mohamed Reda.
Nassar defended his decision to expel the students implicated in campus violence, saying it was a necessary measure administrators needed to take. “Public opinion was heavily against us for not acting decisively against acts of violence and sabotage. We changed that,” Nassar said in a television interview.
In banning all party-affiliated student groups, Nassar drew criticism. “I am not surprised Nassar made this decision, he sold himself to the authorities long ago,” says Ahmed Fahmy, the student representative at the university for the progressive opposition, the Dostor Party. Fahmy, whose party was founded by Mohamed ElBaradei, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the International Atomic Energy Agency, says that the decision is in line with the Egyptian government’s repressive attitude.
Not everyone feels that way. “The reaction is blown out of proportion. Most of these student groups were used as official breeding grounds and recruiting tools for political parties. Nowhere in the world would this be accepted,” says Kortam, who received his own Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham, in the United Kingdom.
The decision to ban student politics—even banning party slogans on T-shirts—may not be easy to enforce, says al-Husseini. The main problem with the decision, he says, is that it doesn’t solve the main problems—such as the radicalization of students. “It merely disbands groups who have existed in one form or another for over 30 years and will continue to do so, even unofficially,” he says.
Nassar claims that his decision is not an absolute ban on campus politics. “We will encourage politics that work towards a national goal,” he says. As a former member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party’s policies committee and a member of the recent constituent assembly that forged the 2013 Egyptian constitution, Nassar does have a history of close ties to the government, with the exception of the previous Muslim Brotherhood-led government, of which he was a fierce critic.
Throughout his time as president, Nassar has faced other allegations of working too closely with authorities. Most notably he sanctioned investigations into many established lecturers at Cairo University, especially those who were members of, or expressed sympathy with the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The stance is one Nassar defends as being in accordance with the law. “Although he has strictly applied the law on students and teachers alike, it is very important that we have had someone during this period like Nassar in control,” says Kortam. “He is in line with the greater political project.”
Nassar has called on Egyptians to invest in the Suez Canal Development Project, started by the president, AbdelFattah El-Sisi. Nassar thinks the project would “help unify the nation.” He has also jumped on the national campaign to put an end to the problem of sexual harassment, by introducing strict measures to curb it at Cairo University. This came after one of his most famous gaffes when he criticized the dress of a girl in a video showing blatant sexual harassment on the university campus. Both the video and his comment on it went viral and caused a media storm. He later apologized.
Al-Husseini says Nassar fulfilled only one of his electoral promises, to rid campus offices of military representatives who held honorary positions. Nassar’s supporters say the achievement was broader. “He made away with all of the unnecessary consulting positions, where high-ranking officials were receiving high wages for doing nothing,” says Kortam.
With unrest and dissatisfaction brewing in Egypt over matters ranging from the lack of electricity to the quality of education, Nassar may be facing even tougher tests in the year to come.