EGYPT: Academics heartened by landmark election

Until a few months ago, deans at Egypt's public universities were selected by the authorities after obtaining approval from security agencies. But since former president Hosni Mubarak was swept aside in a popular revolt in February, academics have been pushing for a say in choosing their leaders. And some have just taken an unprecedented step towards this aim.

Lecturers at the College of Arts at Cairo University, Egypt's biggest state-run higher education institution, recently elected a new dean, a move that has drawn praise from their colleagues at other public universities.

"All other colleges at Egyptian universities should follow the example of the College of Arts," said Dr Mohamed Abul Ghar, a professor at Cairo University's Medical School.

"All deans of colleges should be elected whether [their] terms have ended or not," added Abul Ghar, a co-founder of the March 9 Movement, which espouses independence for universities in Egypt. "Incumbent deans would have the right to contest elections like others."

Around two months ago, higher education authorities in Egypt announced that a major shake-up of deans at governmental institutions would be carried out ahead of the new academic year. This announcement made a little impression on academics, however.

"What happened at Cairo University's College of Arts fulfilled a key demand often made by academics," said Abdullah Sorour, a spokesman for the self-styled University Committee. "Electing college deans through direct balloting should be the basis of the coming shake-up."

In March, Cairo University's College of Mass Communication was rocked by protests by students and lecturers against their state-appointed dean, who they accused of being a loyal to the Mubarak regime. The crisis only eased when his deputy was tasked with running the college's affairs until the planned university leader shake-up.

"The teaching staff of the College of Arts have at last seen their dream come true through democracy," said Randa Abu Bakr, the dean-elect of the college. "I hope that all other colleges and universities in Egypt will follow suit," she told the independent newspaper Al Masri Al Youm.

"These elections crowned the efforts of a group of teaching staff at our college. They dismantled the long tradition of appointing college deans that used to be pursued along political and security lines."

Hossam Kamel, President of Cairo University, saw the situation differently.

"I cannot endorse the result of the vote before the Minister of Higher Education approves relevant rules," local media quoted him as saying. "These elections do not comply with the current university regulations, which stipulate that deans have to be appointed."

The Ministry of Higher Education recently came up with a new formula for picking college deans. Kamel, himself appointed by the state, disclosed that a commission would suggest two options.

"The first is to choose deans through a direct vote. The second combines appointment and election," he said, without elaborating further. "Accordingly, if the first option is approved, the recent elections at the College of Arts will be recognised."

Last week, Minister of Higher Education Ezzat Salama said he expected the issue to be "eventually sorted out" within the next month.