Obama to Speak at Campus 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.

Obama's "color, and his history, and his early upbringing, put him in a unique position" to rebuild trust, Helal said.

Yet the roughly $50 billion in aid given by the United States to Egypt since 1975 has failed to translate into rosy economic prospects for Egypt's bulging under-25 demographic. Tales of engineers who end up driving taxis are common in Cairo, and students fear that without top-of-the-class grades or family connections, a college degree will gain them little more than a shopkeeper's job.

"A lot of people who graduate say you have to be very, very good" to land a white-collar job, said a worried Karim Muhammed, 21, who will graduate this year from Cairo University with a degree in commerce.

Egypt is more connected than ever to the world economy, with successful export zones in the north and 20,000 tech-industry employees working from a gleaming "Smart Village" office park outside Cairo. Privatization deals have contributed to strong economic growth in recent years.

But with half of Egypt's 80 million people younger than 25, "it's a challenge for us as a government" to create enough jobs for new graduates, Egyptian Trade Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid acknowledged.

Cairo University alone has 180,000 undergraduates. Many students have "a feeling that there is a diminishing future," Rachid said, "of more crowds and more demands on opportunity."

Nor is there much expectation among young Egyptians that Obama will push for political change in their country.

In Egypt "we have had a president in power for 30 years. People are persecuted and lack freedom. Obama is honoring this regime," said Wael Abbas, a blogger who posted videos of police brutality and religious harassment on the streets of Cairo in 2006. A crackdown followed, including arrests and fines for some bloggers, though not Abbas himself.

Rules of Politics

To be sure, privately run newspapers and television stations routinely offer criticism of the government. Nightly call-in shows, including one on a state-run broadcast channel available to families that cannot afford satellite service, provide a free-flowing forum for populist complaints.

But the government has drawn the line at opposition activism and organizing, particularly following the Muslim Brotherhood's strong showing in the 2005 parliamentary vote and the sudden appearance of a 60,000-member Facebook group in support of an April 2008 general strike.

Security agencies in Egypt "do not know what to do with connectivity" -- the ability of bloggers, Twitterers and Facebook users to share information and quickly assemble a crowd, said Hisham Kassem, a publisher and human rights activist.

The 2005 election was the first in which Mubarak faced opposition. His opponent, Ayman Nour, who officially received 8 percent of the vote, was jailed after the election, then released this past February as an apparent goodwill gesture toward the Obama administration. Nour, the country's most prominent opposition figure, said he has been invited by U.S. officials to Obama's speech.

But Muslim Brotherhood officials complain of ongoing arrests, police violence and a virtual media blackout of their opposition faction in parliament. And the rules of Egyptian politics are becoming stricter under recent constitutional amendments that, for example, weaken judicial oversight of elections and give the president more power to dissolve parliament, according to an analysis prepared by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Opposition leaders, including Nour's El Ghad party, the Muslim Brotherhood and human rights groups, all agree on one point: Regardless of what Obama says, little will change politically in Egypt until the post-Mubarak era. The president, 81, has no publicly declared successor. Regardless of who takes over, the assumption among local activists and analysts is that plans already are in place to manage the transition with tight security and minimal disruption.

"We are not expecting complete and radical change while Mubarak is alive," Bahgat said. "You can say it is a country in waiting."

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