The feud between the Nile University and the Zewail City for Science and Technology has all the scope of a battle between a tender youngster and an international giant
Until 2011, right before the 25 January Revolution, Egypt had never had a not-for-profit ‘civil’ university, a university ‘owned by the people’ through donations and contributions. Universities were either State universities, among them the venerable Cairo University which opened in 1908 and the Alexandria University whose history goes back to 1938; or private, for-profit universities.
The first civil, not-for-profit university was established in 2006 under the name Nile University (NU). Being the first of its kind in Egypt, the Egyptian Foundation for Technological Education Development (EFTED), a non-governmental organisation dedicated to the advancement of technology education, was set up as a legal entity to manage the university.
The government allocated around 127 feddans (50 hectares) of land and two buildings at a site in the west Cairo satellite town of 6 October for the NU. The agreement was that the government should provide the infrastructure, that is the land and buildings, while the NU would provide the utilities needed. The buildings were thus equipped with technical equipment, information technology infrastructure and furniture paid for with more than USD10 million raised by the university. Until the new, modern campus was completed, the NU operated form temporary headquarters in the Smart Village, a sprawling information technology park on the outskirts of 6 October town.
A new law was passed in 2009 to recognise civil, not-for-profit universities. The NU was the first institution to apply for recognition under this new law. The university moved into its new campus in January 2011, days before the revolution which erupted on 25 January 2011.
The NU was then a research university which offered graduate and undergraduate studies in Engineering, Technology, Management and Management of Technology (MOT), and is especially strong in Communications and Information Technology to some 400 undergraduate and postgraduate students.
This singular university is today facing an uncertain future, embroiled in a political and legal battle that threatens its very existence.
The unforgivable sin
On the surface of it, it appears the main sin held against the NU is that it was the brainchild of former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif who was prime minister till right up to the January 2011 Revolution which ended in the stepping down of longtime President Hosni Mubarak. Nazif was the ‘father’ of the electronic technology in Egypt; as Communications Minister (1999 – 2004) then Prime Minister (2004 – 2011) he introduced the State-sponsored free Internet access to Egypt and spearheaded the move to digitise a plethora of government services for Egyptians over the Internet. Under him, Egypt made large strides in the electronics field, and stood to be a serious competitor to India in the outsourcing of electronic services.
Nazif had a strategic plan to introduce research-based universities to Egypt, and the NU was the first fruit of his efforts. Following the 2011 Revolution, however, Nazif was plagued with corruption charges, and the NU came in for a fair share of trouble. It went through a controversial ordeal when a complaint was filed on 9 February 2011 to the prosecutor general against Nazif, accusing him of abusing his position to gift public land and two buildings worth EGP2 billion to NU for its new campus.
Zewail steps in
One week later, the new cabinet decided to transfer control of the new campus from the university to the cabinet’s Education Development Fund (EDF). A corruption investigation was launched, but university officials pointed out in the media that there can be no ‘corruption’ allegations and that it was impossible to return land and buildings to the government when they were already government-owned. The plan had been for the NU to have right of use of the land, not to purchase it.
Among Egyptian political and education circles, word was that the corruption charges against the university were politically motivated to discredit Nazif and the old regime.
In October 2011, the government ordered the NU to vacate the site; the buildings and equipment were to form part of the Zewail City for Science and Technology (ZCST), a project announced in May that year and planned by Egyptian Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail, a chemist. The ZCST was touted as a science and technology educational institution that would carefully train selected students in basic state-of-the-art science and engineering and offer them hands-on research opportunities. It would be equipped with the most advanced tools and laboratories. The basic academic structure would include both undergraduate and graduate programmes with a new, versatile and multi-disciplinary approach.
Even though publicity for the science city claimed that NU would be at its centre, Zewail told its faculty and students he couldn##t guarantee that they will be included, according to Muhammad Abdel-Mottaleb, director of Nile University’s nanotechnology programme.
Banned from campus
Once the government gave all NU land to the ZCST, the NU students were banned from the campus premises. Given the situation, dozens of NU students staged prolonged sit-ins in front of the NU premises to demand their right to the campus. In a show of solidarity, a number of students at other universities have reportedly joined them. They filed complaints with all relevant authorities: the military council, the government, and the People’s Assembly, but to no avail. Finally, they took their case to court. Four cases were filed, the first in July 2011.
In 2012, the students and faculty rigged up a ‘temporary headquarters’ for their NU in tents in front of their original campus which they were now banned from using and which the ZCST occupied. That temporary NU saw lectures delivered and several Masters degree theses defended there.
In November 2012, the court ruled that the land and buildings should be handed over to the NU, but the ruling was never implemented.
In April 2013, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the land which the NU had rented form the Egyptian government should be returned to the NU. The court stressed the importance of maintaining the NU which enjoys the status of a legal State entity, and avoid changing the students’ legal situations. But this has not solved the problem; the NU is still with no land or campus, and its students and faculty are fighting inside and outside the courts of law for their right to their original campus.
But this time too, the ruling was not executed.
ZCST media consultant Sherif Fouad, for his part, says that NU officials had formally conceded the property to the Zewail City project. It transpired, however, that “individual decision” had been made by Aqeel Bashir, a former NU board member, to concede the campus premises to ZCST. The 2013 court decision, however, has righted that matter.
Mr Fouad claims that the ZCST offered to share the campus and buildings with the NU but the NU rejected the offer. NU officials for their part, deny the claim, and say it was the ZCST officials who refused to sign that agreement.
The ZCST filed a case before an ordinary court which ruled in their favour. Professor of criminal law General Ali Zein al-Abedin says the legal wrangling has exploited all the possible loopholes for each party to attain its objective. Now there is one ruling, by the Administrative Court, in favour of the NU and another by the ordinary court in favour of ZCST. The Supreme Constitutional Court is now reviewing the case. It will not rule in the favour of any of the parties, but will only determine which court should be in charge of seeing the case. If it is the administrative court, then its ruling will apply; and if the ordinary court, ditto.
According to Abdel-Aziz Higazi, prime minister, from September 1974 till April 1975 and head of the board of trustees of the NU, serious efforts by high-ranking officials in education to resolve the NU/ZCST problem have broken before Zewail’s arrogant intransigence. “Zewail is using his international prestige to pressure the Egyptian authorities,” Mr Higazi told the Egyptian press. “When I asked him what he would do if the court finally rules in favour of the NU, he said he would leave Egypt and ‘scandalise you before the whole world’.”
“If Zewail has an idea that will benefit Egypt,” he says, “we warmly welcome it; God knows Egypt needs all the help it can get. But this cannot be by bringing down another beneficial project that had barely stood on its feet.”
NU students board and students realise they face a tough fight. Given Zewail’s exalted status in Egypt, they have been warned they’re taking on “Egypt’s Einstein”.
The university remains in a state of uncertainty, with national research contracts frozen, no new students enrolled, no full salaries paid to faculty members, and valuable equipment abandoned. “The only electronic lab of its kind in Egypt, which cost some USD600,000, has been collecting dust for two years now because we have no place to put it,” research assistant Muhammad Nassar told the Egyptian press. “And whoever says NU hasn’t accomplished anything, just open Google Scholar and type ‘Nile University Cairo’ and you##ll find as many research papers as you want.”
25 December 2013