Shortly after being sworn in as Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president, Mohamed Mursi was driven by motorcade to Cairo University, the country’s oldest secular higher education institution.
Minutes later, the engineering professor showed up in the auditorium where US President Barack Obama delivered his landmark address in 2009.
“We are at Cairo University, where I took my first steps in the domain of higher education,” is how Mursi started his inaugural speech.
“I am honoured to have belonged to this university as a student, a demonstrator [lecturer] and an assistant teacher,” he told a hall packed with politicians and army generals last weekend.
Mursi graduated in 1975 from Cairo University’s engineering school, where he also obtained a masters degree. In 1978 he went on a scholarship to the US, where he studied for an engineering PhD at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
For the next three years, he taught as an assistant professor at California State University. Later, on his return to Egypt, he pursued a teaching career at Zagazig University, a state-run institution north of Cairo.
Midway through his address, Mursi was keen to take a symbolic oath of office, partly in honour of his alma mater and also to please former lawmakers who were angry at a ruling by the country’s highest court dissolving the Islamist-dominated parliament.
“Cairo University is an illustrious bastion of knowledge and a major institution for prominent scholars and scientific research,” he added.
Established as a private institution in 1908 when it was called the Egyptian University, it was renamed Cairo University after the army’s overthrow of Egypt’s monarchy in 1952.
Mursi was a former senior official in Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood. He was detained by his now-jailed predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, in 2006 and again in 2011 at the peak of a popular revolt that eventually toppled Mubarak.
In his address, Mursi offered an apology to students whose end-of-year exams were suspended due to his visit to the university.
An apology is rare in a country where Mursi’s predecessors enjoyed almost absolute power and used to disrupt street traffic with their heavily guarded, massive motorcades.
Mursi (61) is perceived as a modest, populist president who has pledged to keep “the doors of the presidential palace open” to be in touch with the people.
“The significance of Mursi’s choice of Cairo University is that this university stands out as a symbol of secularism,” said Mohammed al-Khesht, a professor of philosophy. “It is also the institution where leading secularists have studied and graduated.”
Egypt’s secularists and its Christian minority are worried about the rise of political Islamism in post-Mubarak Egypt. They have called for Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood to act to dispel their worries.
“I think Mursi is following in the footsteps of Obama, who sent a message of peace to the Muslim world from Cairo University. Similarly, Mursi wanted to send a message of peace to all Egyptians,” said al-Khesht
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