Professor becomes first in Arab world to be elected president

Mohamed Mursi has become the fifth president of Egypt after winning 51.7% of votes in a run-off election, making him the first university professor to rule a country in the Arab world. His election is of considerable significance to higher education.

Mursi's victory was announced by Egypt’s presidential elections committee on Monday following a run-off against former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, in an election made possible by a popular uprising 18 months ago that toppled Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of authoritarian rule.

Mursi is the 16th ruler of Egypt since 1805, the country’s first Islamist leader and the second political prisoner after Anwar Sadat to become president. He was arrested and jailed twice under Mubarak's regime, the first time in 2006 when he spent seven months behind bars and the second time on the ‘Friday of Anger’ on 28 January 2011 during the popular uprising.

Mursi was born in August 1951 in Sharqiya province.

He received a bachelor of engineering degree from Cairo University in 1975, and a masters in metallurgy from the same university in 1978. Then in 1982 he obtained a PhD in engineering from the University of Southern California in the United States.

He worked as a lecturer and a teacher assistant in the faculty of engineering at Cairo University, and at the University of Southern California. He also worked as an assistant professor at the University of North Ridge in California between 1982 and 1985.

From 1985 until 2010 Mursi was a professor and head of materials engineering at Zagazig University in the Egyptian city of the same name. He was elected a member of the faculty staff club at Zagazig.

The president-elect is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist group. Media reported that he would move to allay concerns about an Islamist leader by selecting a woman and a Coptic Christian as his vice-presidents.

According to his election programme, he plans gradually to increase spending on research and development to 2.5% of gross domestic product, to link research institutes to industry, and to promote the protection of intellectual property.

The manifesto includes preparing a national strategy on technology transfer and supporting innovation as a tool for solving development problems. Also, it calls for developing a new system for postgraduate studies and research at universities, along with centres for preparing researchers in the fields of science and morality.

Further, the programme includes establishing autonomous universities with improved pay for faculty, supporting the infrastructures of existing universities and building more institutions, raising the student participation rate, and linking university programmes and student numbers to the needs of the labour market.

Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a researcher at Cairo's National Research Centre, welcomed Mursi’s victory.

"I think the scientific and higher education communities are very optimistic about having a scientist and university professor as the country's president, especially as we already have another two professors as speakers of the Peoples’ Assembly and the Shura Council.” The latter are Saad El-Katatny, a professor of microbiology at Assiut University, and pharmacist Professor Ahmed Fahmy of Zagazig University.

It remained to be seen how this academic triangle of leadership would implement higher education’s election programme, said Abdelhamid.

Now, the urgent issues for the higher education and scientific communities are the approval of a new universities law published on 4 May.

The law, which includes a section increasing academic pay scales, was approved by parliament’s education committee on 11 June – but the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved parliament on 14 June, creating uncertainty over the future of the higher education law and academic pay rises.