EGYPT: Top scientists push for change

Days after the eruption of unprecedented protests against long-serving President Hosni Mubarak (pictured) in late January, Nobel prize-winning US-based Egyptian scientist Ahmed Zeweil arrived in his troubled homeland to join in a pro-reform campaign. He is one of many intellectuals who joined the chorus of calls for sweeping reform.

Increasing numbers of Egyptian academics have been involved in the anti-Mubarak protests over the past two weeks, which succeeded on Friday when the president stepped down.

In an apparent bid to allay anger in the academic community, Minister of Higher Education Hani Helal, who retained his post in a recent government change, last week invited heads of teaching staff clubs and independent unions to meet him for talks on improving their financial status and working conditions.

The offer made a little impression on academics, however. "I have not received an invitation. Even I got it, I would not attend such a meeting until Mubarak steps down," said Mohamed Abul Ghar, a professor of medicine and an activist in the March 9 Movement for University Independence. The question is, would he attend now?

On his arrival in Cairo Zeweil, 64, who won a Nobel prize in physics in 1999 and is currently a professor of chemistry and physics at the prestigious California Institute of Technology and director of its Centre for Physical Biology, told a press conference: "They call young people abroad children of Facebook, but I call them children of Face Egypt."

He was referring to young Egyptians who have been protesting for three weeks, demanding the resignation of 82-year-old Mubarak and fundamental political and social change.

Zeweil held talks with young people of different political affiliations, including those from the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood. He was one of several Egyptian personalities who ventured into Al Tharir Square, the epicentre of anti-Mubarak protests in central Cairo, to talk to demonstrators.

Named in 2009 as the First United States Science Envoy to the Middle East, Zeweil also conferred with newly appointed Vice-president Omar Suleiman, to whom Mubarak transferred his powers on Thursday.

"A council of legal experts and well-respected public figures should be created to discuss constitutional amendments," suggested Zeweil. "A timetable should be set for holding democratic elections." His blueprint for ending the political standoff includes release of all political detainees, lifting the Emergency Law - in force for nearly 30 years - and liberalising the media.

He moreover urged Mubarak, who conferred on him a prestigious medal in 1999, to bow to protesters' demands for immediate resignation. "He should step down tomorrow and allow for a transitional government," Zeweil told Reuters in an interview. Mubarak, who has been in power for 30 years, has said he will not quit before the end of his term next September.

Zeweil has long been campaigning for the promotion of education quality and scientific research in his homeland. In the same interview he admitted that his efforts over the past 15 years foundered over corruption and bureaucracy. "Really, we didn't get anywhere," he said.

Farouk el-Baz, another US-Egyptian scientist, has also been calling for drastic change. El-Baz, a research professor and director of the Centre for Remote Sensing at Boston University, has lent support to anti-regime protesters in their demands for Mubarak to step down.

"He should leave power to allow Egyptian people to choose another [president] in free elections," el-Baz said in an open letter published by the independent newspaper Al Masri Al Youm. Mubarak has left office, but there is no guarantee that new leaders will achieve el-Baz's next demand: "Egypt should end the three decades of lethargy, rife corruption, favouritism and oppression," he added.