Controversial higher education minister replaced

Egypt’s controversial minister of higher education has been replaced in a cabinet change unveiled recently. The sacking of El-Sayed Abdel Khalek, who got the portfolio in June last year, followed a series of disputed decisions that angered the country’s lecturers and students.

Earlier this month Abdel Khalek, a law professor, caused a big stir in Egypt when he sought to exclude the children of security officers and judges from a new admissions system linking registration in state-run universities to students’ hometowns.

In pushing for this exception, he said the step was necessary for “national security considerations”. Security forces and judges have been key targets of militant attacks, which have hit Egypt since the army’s 2013 overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

The massive criticism in local media prompted then prime minister Ibrahim Mahlab to scrap Abdel Khalek’s move.

Academics ignored

Months earlier, academics accused Abdel Khalek of ignoring them while drafting a law amending higher education regulations.

“The Egyptian constitution confirms independence of universities,” said Khaled Samir, a professor at the medical school of the Cairo-based Ain Shams University.

“This means that the minister, being the representative of the executive power, does not have the right to interfere in universities’ affairs,” added Samir, a member of the pro-university independence March 9 Movement.

“But Abdel Khalek ignored this and did not address boards of faculties to learn about their suggestions concerning the new higher education law.”

Relations between Abdel Khalek and academics further soured last month when he lashed out at a spokesman for an independent union of university lecturers during a live TV debate on the proposed changes to the higher education law.

Abdel Khalek stormed out of the debate after calling his interlocutor “impudent”. The incident triggered calls for the minister’s sacking.

He was also accused of blocking the holding of student union elections for the third year in a row, allegedly to create student groupings loyal to him at universities.

Abdel Khalek denied the accusation, saying that the decision to delay was taken by the Supreme Council of Universities, which is in charge of higher education policy in Egypt.

New minister

Replacing Abdel Khalek is Ashraf el-Sheehi, former president of the provincial public university of Zagazig.

El-Sheehi, an engineering professor, has in the past few days sought to depart from his predecessor’s line.

“The draft law on higher education will be presented to universities for discussion. It will also be the focus of workshops,” el-Sheehi said in press remarks.

He also promised to hold student union elections in the new academic year, due to start later this month. “Preparations are underway to hold these elections. The new university year will also see great interest in activities aimed at making use of students’ capabilities."

El-Sheehi is Egypt’s eleventh higher education minister since the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ uprising that forced long-time president Hosni Mubarak out of power.

Egyptian universities have since experienced anti-government protests, which turned violent in the months that followed the toppling of Morsi, a senior leader in the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.