Conflict & Justice

The Revolution at Cairo's American University

They're certainly not the only ones participating in the Egyptian uprising, but young people have been at the forefront of recent street demonstrations. That includes many students from one of Egypt's most prestigious universities.

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The American University in Cairo, or AUC, was established way back in 1919. It's known as the home of Egypt's elite. Today, it finds itself smack in the middle of current events.

The university has a campus right off of Tahrir Square. It's near where especially violent demonstrations took place this week. It was also a dangerous place to be last January, when snipers were seen on AUC rooftops, firing rifles.

The brand new, much larger AUC campus is a 45 minute drive outside the capital. The setting couldn't be more different. It's an oasis of academic calm. But the Egyptian revolution is playing out here, too.

Blood Drive

Dozens of students showed up on Wednesday morning at the AUC health center for a blood drive to help victims of this week's violence. AUC grad student May Ramadan was waiting in line to give blood. She huddled with students around an iPad. On the screen was a live video feed of the clashes happening near Tahrir Square.

"We need to support these people because they're fighting for our freedom," Ramadan said. "They're fighting for our futures and the least we can do is just help them survive and stick in there, you know? We'll make it through. I know we will. It will just cost us more lives and it will take us longer than necessary. But we'll make it through. We will."

The scene at the clinic contradicts the reputation that AUC students have for being the spoiled offspring of Egypt's most prominent families. In fact, the university has had close ties with the Mubarak family. But history professor Zainab Abul-Magd — a zealous supporter of the revolution herself — said the reputation is not deserved.

"I'm not defending every AUC student, because of course there are those apathetic and bourgeoisie, like lavish bourgeoisie type students who really do not care and who argue against this and in my own classes," Abul-Magd said. "I'm just saying it's like any other university campus, there is always a group of student who are leftist and vibrant and doing stuff."

But what needs to be done and what's in the best interest of Egypt? These can be unsettling questions these days. Ahmed Kadry is an advertising major. His uncle also happens to be the former prime minister. Kadry came to campus on Wednesday. He skipped his classes and got into some very heated discussions with friends about this week's events. Kadry said the demand for the immediate resignation of Field Marshal Tantawi — head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — is not reasonable.

"My total respect to the people in Tahrir. Some of them are the people who are not educated and they don't know what the consequences of what they're doing is," he said. "They don't know that the economy is going down. They don't know that everything in the country is going down. They just want him to leave. Either leave or, we're not leaving Tahrir until you leave. We have to compromise. This is our country. And being in Tahrir every day, people being killed, being injured, is not what we're asking for."

Some AUC students are asking for Hosni Mubarak to come back, although they're doing so quietly. Nadeen Hafez is a 20 year-old political science student. She knows people who've put up pictures of the Egyptian dictator on their Facebook pages. They're supportive of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and completely against the revolution.

"That's fine," she said. "I mean, if you're against it, that's fine. That's exactly what we're going for. We're going for democracy. But the only thing I criticize is that if you want something, you should at least know how to argue for it.

Hafez continued, "If you want Mubarak back, or if you prefer the former regime, or if you want SCAF to continue, then give me a solid argument. Just like the revolutionaries will give you a solid argument, you should give a good argument. But other than that, you're free to think whatever you want. It's democracy."
That's precisely the kind of attitude university president Lisa Anderson says AUC is trying to foster: An American-style liberal education. Anderson says, the most interesting ways the revolution has had an impact on AUC is in how the subject is being taught in university courses.

"During the spring, when the faculty decided that they wanted to teach, sort of, real-time history or real-time political science, they ended up assigning as authoritative statements, blogs that were written by the students in their class. So at that point," Anderson said, "the inversion of authority and so forth, was almost complete."

Along with the rest of the country, the American University in Cairo is going through big changes. Up until recently, AUC was technically banned from dealing with religion or politics on campus — like all Egyptian universities. Those days are over, even if the future of the country is unclear.

  • give-blood250.jpg

    More than 100 AUC students lined up to donate blood for the victims of street battles near Tahrir Square this week.

  • mural620.jpg

    A mural on the campus of the American University in Cairo celebrates the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, whose wife and two sons graduated from AUC.

  • khadry300.jpg

    Ahmed Kadry is an AUC student who wants to go into advertising. He says he supports the revolution, but he worries about the damage violent demonstrations are causing to the country.