Islamist professor becomes higher education minister

One month after Egypt got its first-ever elected Islamist president, the higher education portfolio went to another Islamist – engineering professor Mustafa Musad.

Musad was responsible for education in the election campaign of Mohamed Mursi, also an engineering professor, who took office on 30 June as the country's first elected civilian president.

Yet another academic, Usama Al Abd, president of Al Azhar University, was named the minister of Waqfs – religious endowments – in what local media interpreted as a sign that moderate Islam would be promoted in the predominantly Muslim country.

Musad (60), who worked at Cairo University, was selected as one of four Islamists from Mursi's powerful Muslim Brotherhood party and was appointed higher education minister in a new government unveiled earlier this month.

He was formerly head of the education committee in the Brotherhood's freedom and justice ministry.

The 84-year-old Brotherhood was banned for decades under Egypt's former military rulers, until weeks after a popular revolt unseated president Hosni Mubarak in February last year.

The rise of Islamists post-Mubarak has raised fears in Egypt about potential restrictions on freedoms. However, Musad's choice for the job has not prompted concerns among academics.

“There is no need to fear him on the grounds that he belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Khaled Samir, a professor of medicine at the state-run Ain Shams University. “He is open-minded and efficient,” added Samir, a member of a pro-university independence movement.

Following his appointment as Egypt's sixth higher education minister since Mubarak's overthrowing, Musad promised to be inclusive. “I am a minister for all academics. I will not be biased against anyone because of his political leaning,” he said.

Mubarak's police systematically targeted Islamist students and detained many of them without charges or trial under notorious emergency laws, which have since been cancelled.

A 1973 graduate of the public Cairo University, Musad has not held an administrative post before. As minister, he has pledged to work for universities' independence and to draft a long-term strategy for developing higher education.

“My immediate mission is to discuss with aides and colleagues at Egyptian universities how to raise the standards of universities in the country to ensure the graduation of high quality students,” he was quoted in local media as saying.

Musad also said he would review admissions criteria in Egypt's 17 private universities, to ensure that they strictly observe a rule giving priority to local applicants.

Egyptians have recently complained that universities prefer foreign applicants, mainly from the wealthy Gulf region, to Egyptians because international students pay higher fees.

Musad's appointment as higher education minister is seen as a symbol of radical changes in Egypt since Mubarak's toppling.

Islamist professors were usually denied holding top posts in universities and other public institutions due to their ideological background. While an engineering professor, Egypt's current president was detained at least twice during Mubarak's 30-year rule.

This does not mean that Musad's job is a bed of roses. He is facing the same problems that troubled his predecessors.

One key challenge is how to drastically improve the financial status of lecturers in state-run universities. Lecturers in several universities recently went on a partial strike to press the government for a substantial pay increase.