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EGYPT: Angry students, academics push for a new era

Having just finished his mid-year examinations at the faculty of commerce of Cairo University, Egypt's largest public university, 21-year-old Hossam Abdel Khaleq was keen to join thousands of his fellow citizens in pushing for drastic reforms in this country of 80 million people. With all universities closed, there was plenty of time to protest.

"I have been taking part in the protests against President Hosni Mubarak since they started on 25 January," said Abdel Khaleq, who denied having any political leaning.

"I am just an Egyptian who is disappointed at the decline in standards in my country over recent years. Egyptians deserve a better future."

Abdel Khaleq was one of thousands of university students who joined protesters camping in Al Tahrir Square in central Cairo, demanding the immediate resignation of Mubarak, 82, a former army general who has been in power for almost 30 years.

As countries around the world scrambled to evacuate international students out of Egypt, there were reports of some joining the protests, and The Moscow Times claimed Russian students had "joined a stick wielding militia that is guarding neighbourhoods from looters". Some foreign students chose to stay in Egypt.

Many academics also joined the rising chorus of anger against Mubarak and his government. "Egypt has to go through hard days before a new dawn breaks," Hassan Nafae, a professor of political science and an anti-Mubarak activist, told University World News.

"However, I am fully confident that the people who have unleashed this major revolution are able to protect it until the end, either from the Mubarak regime or from all those opportunists, who want to make personal gains from this uprising."

Nafae and many academics are members of a pro-reform campaign spearheaded by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the international nuclear watchdog and a leading opposition activist. Many of them have kept a high profile in current protests.

After two weeks, nearly a dozen deaths and thousands of injuries, the protests are still going - despite yesterday's mass resignation (aside from Mubarak) of the ruling party's leadership council and an announcement that talks would kick off between new Vice President Omar Suleiman and the banned-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood.

Demonstrators rejected the resignations as cosmetic. "Some people say it is cleaning out but I believe these are cards they are throwing on the table to please the street, it's like a striptease show," businessman Mahmud Momen told ABC News.

Yesterday, Egyptians abroad also took to the streets demanding Mubarak's resignation. There were demonstrations in Paris, London, New York, Tokoyo, Ramallah and other cities.

Last week Mubarak promised the nation that he would not seek a sixth term in office after his current tenure ends in September. He also pledged to introduce constitutional amendments to remove restrictions for running for president and curb presidential terms to two - demands long made by his opponents.

But while his address on Tuesday won him sympathy from many Egyptians, students in Al Tahrir Square saw things differently. "This man must step down now. He is to blame for all damage suffered by Egypt in all walks of life," said Abdel Khaleq.

"In addition, Mubarak has provided no guarantee for his promises. His entourage may pressure him into breaking his promises and detaining his opponents."

Egyptian authorities declared all educational institutions, including universities, closed indefinitely due to the turmoil that has spread across the country. However, in a recent government shake-up, Mubarak kept Hani Helal as minister of higher education. It is not currently clear if Helal will continue to survive politically, after yesterday's resignations.

There has been some damage to university property. The American University in Cairo said its downtown building was ransacked but damage had not been substantial, and that its main campus in the suburbs was untouched.

A large proportion of the anti-Mubarak protesters are jobless university graduates. Protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have been fuelled by various problems such as lack of political freedom and oppression, but a major factor has been the expansion of higher education without simultaneous growth in job opportunities, leading to graduate joblessness.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal quoted a recent comment made by International Monetary Fund economists Yasser Abdih and Anjali Garg: "Surprigingly, unemployment in the [Middle East and North Africa] region tends to increase with schooling." In the US, the paper said, "the opposite is true".

According to the World Bank, in 1990, 14% of college-age Egyptians were enrolled and this rose to 28.5% in 2008. "Egyptian schools expanded, and a crop of European universities opened campuses there. The Egyptian government doubled funding for higher education in its 2007 five-year plan and sought international advice on revamping the system."

The Wall Street Journal also pointed to a 2010 study of higher education in Egypt by the World Bank and OECD, which noted a chronic oversupply of graduates, accompanied by complaints from business that graduates did not have the skills they needed.

"I graduated from law school three years ago. But because I have no friends in high positions, I cannot land a job," Moustafa Khalil, one of the angry protesters, told University World News.

"Due to rife corruption and nepotism, graduates like me have slim chances for survival. But our chance now is to dismantle this corrupt regime and establish a society of justice and equality."

Nature magazine wrote last week that while academics had added their voices to the call for change, "the volatile situation in the country inevitably means uncertainty for the scientific enterprise".

Academics complain bitterly about conditions in universities, including lack of funding and equipment, low salaries and poor organisation. But it was harsh conditions and lack of opportunties countrywide that dominated the discource of academics in the past two weeks.

Tahir Ahmed Yehia, an agricultural scientist at Cairo University, told Nature: "In this protest there is no distinction between university professors and students. We've all come out as Egyptians. There is no distinct age or social standard, we all have the same demands - a regime change for one that improves conditions for us all and tackles the problems we have faced for so long."
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