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Notes et articles sur l’Égypte

Maurice Martin

Partie 3 - Une société en changement

University expansion and student life in Egypt

Note de l’éditeur

Source : CEMAM Reports, 1978, p. 197-211.

Si la jeunesse égyptienne est un thème régulièrement traité par les chercheurs et observateurs, celui des structures dans lesquelles évoluent au quotidien les étudiants l’est moins. Cet article apporte un éclairage précieux sur le fonctionnement du système universitaire et sur la condition étudiante, tout en abordant les multiples enjeux que soulève la démocratisation de l’université. (N.D.R)

Texte intégral

1In this essay we would like to set out the dominant traits of student life in Egypt. The democratization and expansion of secondary education and the multiplication of university centers have brought in their wake structural changes in the youth population which are most clearly manifested in the conditions of student life. These changes bring to the fore the pressing problems of administering the education which is now more widely available than ever before, problems which include the utilization of time and space, and the eventual adaptation to future employment – one of the pressing problems confronted by developing nations is the need to coordinate the aspirations of the students involved in higher education with their countries needs. All these problems are symptomatic of an accelerated cultural transformation, or “modernization”, which in our time is omnipresent and may create the false impression that cultural differences in the world are being obliterated. Arab writers often speak of their specific cultural traits in a somewhat theoretical way, whereas the specific stamp that will be given to this “modernization” in the Arab world comes from the milieu in which this change is now operative. Thus a closer look at university education in Egypt should help us to formulate the specific traits that will mark the Egypt of tomorrow.

2The structure of higher education in Egypt has been described recently, and the qualitative and quantitative challenges which it must overcome are worrying. We will not go into them except to indicate some modifications which have taken place during the past five years. Also, it is not so much the professional value of the graduate from universities of higher institutes which directly interest us, but the human experience cultural, social, political of the student during the period of his higher studies.

The challenge of university growing

3In 1970 there were five universities in Egypt: three in the capital (Cairo University, Ayn Shams, al-Azhar), one at Alexandria, and one at Asyut. Since then, five of their regional branches have become autonomous universities (Tanta, Mansurah, Zaqazik and Minufiyah in Lower Egypt and Minya in Upper Egypt) and the Technological University of Helwan has been founded. There are actually twelve universities. Their expansion is prolific, for not only these new universities, which open every year additional colleges which they lack, but they also establish regional colleges in the provinces. Thus the College of Agronomy at Kafr al Shaykh is attached to Tanta, the College of Education at Madinat al-Fayuni is attached to Cairo University, and Asyut has branches at Suhaj (Education, Arts, Sciences), at Qana and at Aswan (Education and Sciences). The University of al-Azhar is creating a branch at Asyut and projects another at Zaqazik in here the ground has already been broken. Since a College of Business is to open at Bani Swayf for the school year 1977-1978, and later a College of Medicine at Binha, one can predict that each provincial center will soon have its own University center.

4These regional branches are not creations ex nihilo; they often are developed from, and replace a Normal School or an institute of higher education. Unfortunately they are usually no better equipped than their predecessors, but they do increase the number of students, offer more opportunities for advanced study to the youths of the provinces, and give a new character to the peaceful provincial, villages which previously were merely commercial or administrative centers. Thus, these university extensions create important transformations in both the social conditions of the student and in the urban provincial society.

5The new technological university at Helwan, created in 1975 experiences some of the problems confronted by the newly established university branches while facing its own distinctly individual problems. At present it groups already existing higher technical institutes dispersed between Cairo and Alexandria under a common administration. Thus colleges of home, economies, social service, physical education, agronomic sciences, postal studies, etc., clearly show their origins, but the graduates of these ex-institutes now have a university degree with the financial and social advantages that this brings. It is hoped that the university will grow to 45,000 students, thus relieving some of the pressure exerted on the traditional universities. Moreover, the founding of this university has a specific aim: to fill the gap between general university formation and the urgent need for specialized technicians.

6Thus, the transformation of a regional Normal School into a College of Education, Arts or Sciences aims at attracting and holding students who otherwise would go to Cairo, Alexandria, or Asyut, and, at the same time, the government hopes that the creation of regional universities will facilitate the adaptation of the curriculum to the particular needs of each region. This accelerated university expansion is accompanied by a geometric increase in student enrollment. This is a consequence of the expansion of secondary education, which had less than 40,000 students in 1950. The number rose to 161,517 in 1970; 228,734 in 1973; 320,100 in 1975, and now is said to number 400,000, of which 30,000 are in higher technical institutes. A great disparity still exists between the number of students attending university in Cairo or Alexandria and those attending the provincial universities. In 1975 Asyut had about 27,250 students; Mansurah 20,000; Tanta 18,000; Zaqazik 15,000; Minya 5,000. The regional branches, obviously, have even fewer students, for example Suhaj had only 800. The great “mother universities” of the three “capitals” Cairo, Alexandria, and Asyut  still have a much larger student population. However, the student population now forms a rather large and autonomous entity with its own style and its particular concerns; each of the provincial centers has its “quota” which is relatively important; 5,000 students at Minya are no more submerged by the population than are 200,000 in Cairo.

7This rapid growth in the student population has out-distanced all attempts to expand the professorial corps proportionately. The student/professor ratio, estimated at 1/49 in 1963, seems to have been maintained at this level until 1975 for the universities of Cairo, Alexandria and Asyut, but it had already fallen at Ayn Shams to 1/57, at Zaqazik to 1/70, Tanta 1/78 and Mansurah, 1/108 in the technical institutes it even reaches 1/255. The situation, from one aspect, is not as bad as this might seem to indicate, because approximately 2/5 of the Colleges of Arts, Commerce, and Law are “externs” – enrolled but not obliged to attend classes. Yet from another aspect the situation is even worse than the ratios indicate, for one professor frequently teaches in more than one university at a time and thus has an overburdening class schedule and far too many students to allow personal contact. The principal problem which higher education faces is that of overpopulation. One humorist claims that there are 36 students per square meter in the universities!

8Overcrowding compounded by lack of materials and equipment are the terms which the educational authorities constantly use to voice their complaints. If the large universities regularly acknowledge delays and lack of resources for renewal and expansion, what must be the complaints of the new-comers? Provincial universities and regional branches are frequently set up in old buildings constructed for very different purposes – a secondary school or less – using the material found there and sometimes lacking essentials. Some of their students are lodged in a “university city” made up of low-cost housing, while waiting for a functional campus for which the “ground breaking” has already been celebrated with much ado.

9Our aim here is not to point out the neglect of the state or to discredit the education given, for there are necessities pressuring the System from all sides, which must be given consideration. Education has to be expanded, the children from the countryside cannot be excluded from secondary education, they cannot be given diplomas, which open no doors in the society, nor can they be allowed to move into the already crowded universities of the capital. At the same time, provinces will not develop without graduates formed for them and possessing the practical knowledge, which comes from a program adapted to the milieu. Finally, youth are convinced that they will not be able to better their future nor rise socially except by means of prolonged study and a diploma. Every year then, their numbers increase at the doors of the universities and institutes, and it seems that authorities never have the time or breathing space to, work out an overall plan which will arrange, and coordinate all. These pressures which pull in opposite directions finally, when the waves of young people arrive at the universities and institutes demanding that a place be found for them no matter what the cost, the decision taken each time is to increase admissions, open regional colleges, and group them in autonomous provincial universities.

10To control that flood and distribute it they’re as only one sluice gate, the marks obtained in the terminal exams for secondary. The highest marks open the doors to the most wanted colleges: medicine, engineering, political economy; and in the most prestigious universities: Cairo, Ayn Shams and Alexandria.

11The students see their possibilities for a choice of type and place of education diminish with their marks. The majority find themselves pushed to a profession a vocation without much personal motivation. Still, this is the only door open to that narrow and overcrowded area where one can prepare for a better future. Once the thereshold is crossed, what does it mean to be “a student”?

Being a student in Egypt

12To be a student is, first of all, to face rather difficult material conditions for work. In the first place, it is necessary to find room in the amphitheatre or the classroom; this can be difficult as frequently there are only half as many seats as are needed. The rest of the students must stand throughout the class, squeezed into any little space, which remains. Then note taking begins, provided one can hear the professor and can find a suitable position for writing; if not, then notes have to be copied from a student lucky enough to have secured a more advantageous position. Copying and re-copying notes are the great time consuming occupations of the students, for even if the course is printed and sold later, it is expensive and often is not published until just prior to the exam. In the colleges where travaux pratiques make up part of the course, these sessions are also overcrowded. There are always too many students assigned to use one apparatus, too many for each of the limbs to be dissected, even though the number of study groups has been increased to the point that many must meet outside normal school hours and even during vacations. It follows that student-professor relations are rare. This lack is hardly made up for by the presence of an assistant responsible for repetitions and discussions: a young graduate student, undoubtedly among the first in his class, but scarcely older or wiser than the students he aids. Moreover, the student’s contact with the material – used in his future profession is very limited – as is his familiarity with the library of ideas which should have at his disposal.

13The student, therefore, is going to try above all, and almost exclusively, to make sure he gets the “course” in its most complete form. Since he cannot be fully secure with the notes he has taken from the lectures in the amphitheater and the discussions, his most important concern is to get the textbook, that is the manual or the mimeographed lecture of the professor from which the exam questions are taken. Among the professors and the administration, the utility, the price, and the period for which the manual is valid are all topics of heated discussion and controversy. But for the student, the manual is absolutely necessary. In certain colleges he may also need a few Arabic or English books. The number depends on the “wealth” and the requirements of each university. For the majority of students, however, notes and manuals are the irreplaceable treasure, which they memorize up to, the eve of the exams.

14In order to be more sure, the student may also pay for tutoring, which is usually given in small groups. This practice is illegal, or course, and is often denounced as contrary to free education. But, in fact, it seems that the vast majority of teaching assistants give themselves over to the practice under pressure from students whose level, especially in language, leaves much to be desired. For the wealthier students tutoring by the professor himself, especially in the medical schools, is considered indispensable if the student hopes to pass his exams with sufficiently high marks to qualify as a teaching assistant in the university or to continue his studies abroad.

15It is in this way that dominant elite perpetuates itself in the country. For the vast majority of students, it is also a difficult and frustrating experience to find oneself denied the same quality of education and the same prospects for the future because of one’s economic or social level.

16Provided with – or deprived of – these means, the student lives out the six months which constitute the university year in fear of the exams. The questions asked in the exam do not go beyond the strict matter of the course, completed, if need be, by a printed text in which the course and some indications for reading are found. This is what must be learned for the exam and memorization is the surest method. A simple “pass” is not sufficient to stay on top and be sure of the future; that requires an “excellent”. “Good” can be considered as insufficient, even bad. Even to know all by heart is not an absolute guarantee of success, because 30% of the final grade is for work done during the year. Success remains in the hands of the professor, and it is the means he has for maintaining control over the student. Lost in the mass of his comrades, the student has scarce means to assert his distinctiveness, and he had better not make any assertion in an untimely protest!

17In these conditions, the acquisition of university learning is a desperate and hazardous undertaking. Desperate, because no matter how narrow the field to be mastered may be, the number of students and the competition demand enormous efforts for which intelligence is no substitute. Paradoxically these almost disproportionate efforts are, in a way, “passive”, because the student becomes a slave to the content of books with limited and compartmented matter. For the majority of students this “passive” acquisition of modern knowledge for a profession never calls into question the cultural bases of their traditional society. Modernization is not a reflection on culture, especially the inherited religious culture. Undoubtedly this is a partial explanation of why the student and the graduate can maintain a sort of double, parallel comportment: modern in the techniques acquired, traditional in the style of life and thought.

18In the final analysis, the mastery of knowledge remains doubtful and approximate for the student. Because there is insufficient experimentation, he gets only glimpses of the application of this knowledge and knows that he will not learn his profession until later during practice. It is the exams and not professional training which assures a job with the government.

19The effort demanded is also an individual effort despite the mass of students that fill the campus, because memorizing a course hardly allows for group work and the conditions for examinations set a tone of fierce competition – for second place marks, the first place being already occupied by the privileged. Though the student enters the university in hope of being liberated from his social conditioning, he soon finds his liberty almost as limited as it was and his future as an educated person without very extensive horizons.

20Such as it may be, the university assures preparation for exams, but the conditions are more precarious the further one gets from Cairo and Alexandria and the further one is removed from scientific specialization. The student is well aware that there are universities and colleges, which are second rate. In the end, he will receive a diploma, which will finally get him a job. Still, it is necessary to live while waiting for the diploma, and the university is not able to provide all that is needed housing board, and leisure pursuits. The university does try to help in this area, but, once again, for a minority and only for essentials.

21The system of grades established for admission, as we have mentioned, channels and distributes the mass of students not only according to specialization but also according to geographical location; the Engineering College in Cairo is more demanding than those of Asyut or Mansurah, and a student from Cairo who is set on studying engineering may be obliged to go into the provinces for at least one or two years. Moreover, the provincial universities and their regional branches draw in students from a radius of about 100 km. Thus there is a vast student migration and the first problem facing the migrant student is that of lodging. The “university cities” which offer each year; once again norms for admission have been set up. Since the question of lodging is of prime importance for the girl student, her family would not allow her to go unless lodging were assured in secure surroundings, and special efforts are made to lodge the women, but the rest of the students are forced find lodgings independently. One should be aware of what this can mean for a poor student in a provincial city; it is not difficult to imagine that his room is scarcely a place only about 1/10 of the necessary space, are under assault for study. Lodging, board, a certain minimum of clothing, notebooks and manuals exhaust the student’s meager finances; there is hardly question of leisure expenses or sports, most students must be content with occasional outings organized by the student union. One should not imagine, however that this life style, which appears so austere, deters the students. A limited choice of studies, a lack of attraction for the profession in preparation, difficulties of studying, a fear of exams and strained living conditions – all these are compensated for and more by other satisfaction. Besides having accomplished the main feat of staying in the channel which leads to a diploma and a relatively sure job, as well as enjoying the opportunity to become a part of the modern cultural world which surpasses his final horizons, the student at the university becomes part of an infinitely more free social environment. As a first result of the democratization of education, the student finds the possibility of social mobility intoxicating. He is now sure of doing “better” than his father who is a peasant, a servant, a laborer or a petty civil servant. The student also escapes from the pressures of family, village or quarter to find himself free and anonymous; he has become part of a large homogeneous group where, for the first time, he can participate in a new style of life, which is to his liking. The student migration produces a great mixing of the population and one discovers the “other” without limits of clan or province. Each forms his own little group, each has his place for meeting and the ultimate field for discussion nourished by the new social and political life he has uncovered. Finally, the student experiences that “student power” which is honored and already feared.

22Above all the student discovers the intermingling of the sexes, which accompanies co-education. Contacts are controlled, of course, by custom and fear, but new possibilities open up and this point, for many, completely overturns the norms they had been taught. This relaxation of traditional standards along with the access to professional life, which follows, is largely responsible for the accelerated evolution in women’s status. The movement is “irreversible” for the young woman. A certain equality is established by the parity of learning and the economic distribution of the working site. Still it is the male student who feels the sense of liberation much more than the women, who still feel the pressures of social conventions.

23To cite only one instance, during the summer there is a sizeable exodus of male students who go abroad to seek employment in Europe. This work abroad not only reinforces the process of uprooting but also enables many of the students to pay for their education at home, for the salaries they receive are exorbitant by Egyptian standards. England or Germany rank first among the desirable places to work; France or Italy come second and now certain Arab countries (Lebanon, Kuwait). These countries receive for two or three months tens of thousands of young Egyptians. The press has recently offered counsel, given warnings, cautions, examples of setbacks and problems, protests from Egyptian consulates, and indignation of journalists: cannot these young people be used to build up their own country? What image do they give of Egypt abroad? Even the People’s Assembly has taken up the question and is preparing legislation, but any regulations in this line will no doubt end up like so many others, and the departures will grow as the student population increases. The students may return a little more frustrated with their own conditions of life and study, or, on the contrary, shocked by the loose morals of the West. Nevertheless, in making contact with young foreigners they have taken one more step towards breaking out of the mold in which they were cast to from their own universe.

24This universe, finally, is marked by the instability common to any area undergoing full change, and it is difficult to underline a trait without immediately pointing out its contrary to correct the balance. Side by side one finds a rather low level of education in non-technical colleges or recently founded provincial universities and a very respectable level in medicine, engineering and economy in Cairo or Alexandria where the faculty is often outstanding. The average student demonstrates a great capacity for work which permits him to compare favorably with students abroad once he has made up for certain gaps in knowledge, but he also has an alarming lack of interest in any personal work outside the strict program. He is liberated from the pressure of his family or local milieu but at the same time he becomes encrusted in his new student image and brings to it some of his old inhibitions, which are manifested in a new way. His knowledge is modern, as are his techniques and even his manners – he has been exposed to a new world of ideas – and yet there are areas never discussed where the traditional norms continue to hold sway. A rapid sketch of the student movement and its insertion into the political life of the nation will allow us to pinpoint more precisely the ambivalence of the student’s state.

25The remarks on the political action of students which follow are culled from the chronology which is found in the appendix; it covers the years 1975-1976. The year 1975 began with strong student participation in the demonstrations growing out of the workers’ strike at Helwan; 1976 spills over into the violence of January 18th and 19th, 1977. During those two years, the government tried to establish its tutelage over the student movement by keeping it within the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) and preventing the political parties from recruiting students.

26What strikes one first of all is that the agitation of January 1975 touched only the Universities of Cairo, Ayn Shams and Alexandria, and then later as a sort of ricochet, Asyut. In these same universities, the most politicized, there were colleges which remained outside the fracas or showed open hostility to it: such as the College of Commerce in Cairo, even though crowded and very “middle class.” Finally, the regional universities did not budge. However, the authorities seemed to fear that should the center of agitation move closer to the regional universities, there might be problems in the provinces. When labor problems occured at Mahalla in March of the same year, the Minister of Interior met with the faculties of the universities in the region – Tanta, Mansurah, Zaqazik; no doubt he was aware that in that region there is little difference between workers and students with regard to social origin and life style, thus the demands of the one risked being taken over by the other.

27To judge the course followed since 1975, it is necessary to analyze precisely the role the students played in the more violent and widespread troubles of January 1977. This will not be perfectly clear until the groups arrested are judged in each region. At present it is known that among the detained about one third are young people under 18 years of age. It is also clear that the authorities judged the student participation sufficiently formidable to anticipate and prolong the university mid-year vacation. Finally, this time the regional universities moved. Nothing much happened at Asyut, but at Mansurah, Minufiyah, Minya and even at Aswan the students were active. The causes of this “popular explosion”, to call it by its proper name, touched the quick of the student masses as well as that of the underprivileged, strata of the nation.

28This increased participation of the students in the daily concerns of the Egyptian masses has so far proven to be beyond the control of the authorities, despite their attempts to limit all student activity within the Student Unions tied to the ASU and to confine the action of these unions to cultural and university questions. First of all there is a bitter struggle between university political clubs and the leaders of the unions for freedom of political expression in the clubs. Above all, some Muslim university groups, more or less direct members of the Muslim Brothers, have recently surfaced to face off against the “ideological” university clubs. These Muslim groups have spread rapidly in all the universities and now are sufficiently numerous and strong to dominate the general congress of university unions: this evidently took place in the congress of March 1976. We find there an unequivocal sign that the student movement has become responsive to the concerns of the masses.

29This data can be arranged into the following schema. The student world has definitively ceased recruiting its majority from the cultural elite tied to the dominant class. The currents, which now circulate in this student world increasingly, reflect the entire Egyptian society. At a certain level, some groups are sensitive to organized ideologies – mainly Nasserism and Marxism – but for the majority Islam remains the basic ideology. Dissatisfaction and common opposition are manifested by two rather opposed expressions. It is understandable that the first, more “modern” expression is found in the universities or colleges which have maintained a true university tradition, because they have not yet been submerged by the mass of students, while the second, more traditional and religious but no less political expression, is associated with the more rank and file universities or colleges. These differences, which have split the student movement, should not obscure the more profound common element, because the students now are sensitive to the new social awareness and demands of the middle and lower classes and can put to service, everywhere in the country, forces which are by no means negligible.

30In the last analysis, the student milieu appears to be the place where the culture is in full flux, whether we take culture in its more narrow sense as the sum total of all that we know, or in a larger view of things as the totality of our world vision and comportment. Undoubtedly it must then be recognized that the Egyptian student milieu is giving birth to a new culture, equally as remote from Western culture as from classical Muslim-Arab literary culture. Regarding this from the angle of knowledge, Western culture is inaccessible for the student in its creativity and continual renewal because of the poverty of cultural means the student has at his disposal. However, the classical culture is hardy more accessible because of the very change in these cultural instruments, now destined to confront modernity much more than to transmit the tradition. On the level of comportment, Arab-Muslim culture appears to be used more as a brake to irreversible change than as a real image of the future –and the immediate future of the majority of students has little in common with their Western homologues. Perhaps one can say that this new culture is still too inchoate to have a determined content – and its contents are too heteroclite and compartmented. It will take its form especially in terms of the common aspirations in which it will be later incarnated. For the moment it is animated by an enormous effort towards liberation – liberation for survival and for a better, more secure life; liberation by knowledge, even if it be elementary, and by apprenticeship in a new method of work: liberation not so much of the individual – that is a nearly impossible luxury – but of all the group to which one finds oneself necessarily tied. This is why every university group demands in the first place liberty of expression. What these different groups express may seem quite contradictory on the political level, but that which is expressed is doubtless less important than the shared need to find a free expression of oneself and to participate in building up the nation.

© CEDEJ - Égypte/Soudan, 2018

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