EGYPT: Alternatives sought after universities close

Egypt has informed governments with large numbers of foreign students that at least three major Cairo universities could remain closed for up to a year, leaving students scrambling to find alternatives to complete their education.

Malaysia, which had 11,300 students in Egypt before the unrest - among the largest contingent of foreign students in the country - has been told that Al Azhar University in Cairo will remain closed for a year.

It has been informed that Ain Shams University, which has a large number of foreign medical students, will be closed for six months and the University of Cairo will not now reopen before April - the first official indication of the extent to which universities have been affected by unrest.

The private American University in Cairo said it would reopen its New Cairo campus for undergraduate classes on 13 February, and for graduate classes a week later. Its downtown campus (pictured) at Tahrir Square, site of most of the big demonstrations, will remain closed until further notice, the university said in an email to staff and students.

Already Malaysia's Al Madinah International University (MEDIU) is offering places to Al Azhar University students evacuated from Egypt in a major airlift in the last week.

MEDIU, which teaches in English and Arabic, sends many of its students to Egypt for part of their studies. The Malaysian campus also has many lecturers from Middle Eastern countries, including Al Azhar, which is described as the world's largest Sunni Muslim Institution.

Last week several members of staff of Al Azhar University told Arab newspapers they had left their posts to join the protesters demanding that President Hosni Mubarak leave office.

Meanwhile some Malaysian authorities want to bring lecturers from Egyptian universities to Malaysia to enable students to continue their studies. The Malaysian state of Kuala Terengganu has said it is pursuing this, particularly worried that a large number of medical students will not be able to continue their studies in Egypt.

Some 5,200 Malaysian nationals were studying medicine in Egypt, some of them on scholarships provided by Malaysian state governments and Islamic foundations.

The students and Terengganu "will be on the losing end if nothing is done to enable them to continue with their studies here while awaiting the Egyptian universities to reopen", Ahmad Said, Chief Minister of the state government of Terengganu, told local media this week.

Reezal Merican Naina Merican of the Federation of Peninsula Malay Students Associations said: "There is a possibility that they [the students] may not be able to continue their studies [in Egypt]. So the government, particularly the higher education ministry, should negotiate with the Egyptian universities involved to postpone the studies or examinations.

"We should also consider the eventuality that the students continue their studies at local universities. The students need some hope that they will be able to complete their studies," he was quoted as saying by the official news agency Bernama.

Reezal Merican said he had faced a similar situation when he studied in Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1990 when some 30 Malaysians were flown out of Kuwait back home. He and 10 other students, whose studies in Kuwait were disrupted, continued their education at the International Islamic University Malaysia, University Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Malaya.

Lisa Andersen, the new President of the American University in Cairo (AUC) - whose inauguration has been indefinitely postponed - said in a message that the institution was "extremely proud of the AUC community, both those who have participated actively in the public life of Egypt over the last few weeks and those who worked beyond the call of duty to ensure the safety, security and well-being of our students, staff and faculty".

Although circumstances had been difficult, Anderson reportedly said: "It is an honor and privilege to be witness to fruits of a generation's investment in their children, at AUC and elsewhere. We are already planning a variety of activities to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of our community and the opportunities represented by our 'front seat to history'."

In a message on Monday, Anderson said that under the tentative title "The University on the Square: Documenting history in real time", work had begun on a university-wide project to collect testimonies, photographs, audio recordings, artifacts, memorabilia and other documentary evidence of the events of the last several weeks across Egypt.