Obama to Speak at Cairo University, Where Political Freedoms Are Few

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

CAIRO, June 2 -- On the way to Cairo University for a much-anticipated speech on Thursday, President Obama will travel over freshly paved roads and past freshly painted light poles and freshly planted flowers.

But the more common sights for students and faculty at the school are trucks packed with riot police outside the university gates and an enveloping security presence on campus. Student political groups are prohibited. The university's policy on artistic and cultural events, according to its Web site, is "protecting students from all sorts of destructive ideas and corrupt thoughts."

Faculty deans are chosen by the administration, rather than elected by professors, "as a way to combat Islamist influence on campus," according to the State Department's latest human rights report. Students who use the Internet as an outlet for their political or social views are on notice: One Cairo University student blogger was jailed for two months last summer for "public agitation," and another was kicked out of university housing for criticizing the government.

"Any kind of activity that is not sitting in class and listening is interfered with," said Layla Soueif, a mathematics professor and leader of a faculty group that is suing the university to replace Interior Ministry officers on campus with security guards hired by the university.

A New Chance?

Just as Obama's trip has earned the neighborhood around the university a fresh coat of paint, expectations have risen in the Arab Middle East that his speech will mark a fresh start in U.S. relations with the region and with its dominant faith, Islam. At Cairo University, where academic freedom is trumped by the government's security concerns, some students and faculty members are skeptical.

The last time a top U.S. official came to town to give an address was in 2005, when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke at a private school, the American University in Cairo, about the need for democratic change in Arab states.

The address is remembered here for inspiring a few months of political openness that slammed shut when candidates affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood unexpectedly won nearly one-fourth of the seats in parliament that year. There were few complaints from the United States about the subsequent government crackdown.

"Look back on this moment of opening in 2005, and nothing came out of it in terms of concrete reform, or policies overturned, or people in power being replaced," said Hossam Bahgat, a 2002 Cairo University graduate who started the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an organization that focuses on freedom of religion, sexual assault and other personal liberty issues.

But, he added, "it is not true that the Egyptian people resigned from politics." Egyptians remain, in his view, hungry for freedom to speak freely and to control their own lives.

"The message for Obama is not to dictate policies or work for regime change, but to defend the space that is available for Egyptians themselves to raise demands," Bahgat said.

Economic Realities

As a rule, Egyptians appear positively disposed to the new U.S. president, especially compared with his predecessor, George W. Bush.

"Bush outraged Muslims, speaking about 'crusades.' It bordered on equating Islam with terrorism," said Ali Din Helal, former dean of Cairo University's political science department and spokesman for President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party.

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