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Jack McGinn

April 9th, 2019

Fortress America in the Middle East: Academic Freedom at the American University in Cairo

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Jack McGinn

April 9th, 2019

Fortress America in the Middle East: Academic Freedom at the American University in Cairo

1 comment | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

by Karim Maged Malak

US President Richard Nixon with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat waving from a motorcade in Alexandria, 12 June 1974. Source: US National Archives

Most participants in the Egyptian student movement, since its reawakening in 2011 and despite its recent dismemberment, know the songs of al-Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fu’ad Negm. These were the songs that formed the chants, demands, and expressions of the student movement. Yet how many know that one of the duo’s songs targeting US President Richard Nixon landed them with a one-year jail sentence on the charge of ‘insulting the President’? This was the first time in which Article 179 of the criminal code was applied as a result of embarrassment from mocking a foreign president. Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat had wanted Nixon’s 1974 visit to proceed smoothly, but the duo had ruined it by mocking Nixon’s grandiose reception in Egypt, and in the midst of the Watergate scandal.

This was not the only time that a US dignitary’s visit caused an outcry in Egypt. In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt scandalised his hosts when he denounced ‘radical’ Egyptian nationalists, and declared that self-rule would have to wait. His visit and speech at the King Fu’ad I University agitated nationalists and students to the point that the faculty distanced themselves from the visit. After the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in 1952, the student movement would continue to play a predominant role up to the 1980s.

On 10 January 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared at the American University in Cairo (AUC) to give an important address. His visit was advertised the night before in a university-wide email, giving students little time to apply for a formal ‘invitation’. On the day of Pompeo’s visit, the university was closed for a portion of the speech, and turned into veritable fortress. AUC’s administration deliberately sought not to have any visible opposition in the audience. The student protest movement that was so active at the time of the Iraq War, the Second Palestinian Intifada and in solidarity actions with other Egyptian universities, was stifled. With no faculty or students consulted, disgruntlement grew against the University’s new president, Francis Ricciardone.

As a result, AUC’s senate – which represents students, staff and faculty – passed a no-confidence vote against Ricciardone with a majority of 80 percent. Among the senate’s grievances was continued intrusion in academic affairs by Ricciardone’s administration. When AUC’s board of trustees ‘unanimously’ voted to renew its confidence in Ricciardone, one AUC professor wondered whether certain reputable Egyptian members of the board of trustees had indeed voted in favour. Hafiz al-Mirazi, professor of practice at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, posted the following question on his Facebook account:

Some of our colleagues have asked [the following question] in a well-intentioned manner: did indeed Dr. Ziad Bahi al-Din and Mr. Motaz al-Alfi vote in line with the rest of their foreign counterparts “without reservation and unanimously” to overrule the faculty’s decision and confirm their confidence in Ricciardone? Or is it that the practices of the third world have found their way to this unaccountable body?

To my mind, Professor al-Mirazi’s point about ‘third world practices’ of rigging votes to present a veneer of unanimity misses a larger point. Could it be instead the very opposite, that in fact AUC’s own history and practices of American, and even Anglo-American colonial heritage, that hamper the university’s climate of academic freedom? To answer that question a closer look at Pompeo’s visit to AUC, his speech and the history of universities in Egypt is in order.

Academic Discipline or the Discipline of Academia?

Among the first words of Pompeo’s speech was a peculiar yet revealing sentence: ‘Thank you Frank. Thank you for your service to America as well, in addition to the duties you perform here [AUC].’ Such an honest admission regarding Ricciardone’s role on campus demonstrates that it is not the practices of authoritarian ‘third world leaders’ that hamper AUC’s climate of academic freedom, but rather the opposite – that it is the US administration’s use of AUC as an outpost in the region that its faculty and students must contend with. Pompeo’s speech went on to lambast Obama’s policy in Egypt and the Middle East, while also demonising the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is not surprising that Pompeo knew Ricciardone well. In his previous role as head of the CIA, Pompeo had visited the region before; a point he emphasised to his audience in the speech. He wished to show that he ‘knew the region’ and had deliberately made this claim at a reputable ‘American’ university.

The juxtaposition of both points – knowledge of the region, and Pompeo’s choice of venue – attests to the salience of the AUC administration’s preferred knowledge production: intellectual output in the service of American interests. Or, as Steve Smith has aptly put it, ‘the problem of the hegemonic discourse of U.S. IR is that its underlying commitment to the “social science” enterprise, narrowly and historically/culturally defined, makes the mistake of assuming that its “regime of truth” is both self-evident and universal.’ It is through institutions such as AUC that a pro-US ‘regime of truth’ like that described is made and universalised.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at AUC, 10 January 2019. Source: American University of Cairo

Since leaving the State Department, Ricciardone had also been named Vice President of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. In this role, Ricciardone began his transformation from State Department bureaucrat proper to ‘academic’, in preparation for his posting at AUC. He is however not a trained academic, unlike his predecessors such as Lisa Anderson of Columbia University, and is much closer to Pompeo, a US bureaucrat.

As president of AUC, Ricciardone has done his part to promote US foreign policy objectives, particularly Donald Trump’s overtures towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. In a conference marking the fortieth anniversary of the Camp David Accords, Ricciardone spoke about how to emulate the example of Camp David in the near future.

With ‘academic’ presenters such as former National Security Advisor William Quandt, and a personal message from Jimmy Carter, the conference was a shining example of what Joel Beinin describes as the ‘Israelization of American Discourse’. Ricciardone boasted that the conference featured ‘statesmen’ and ‘people who have crossed the worlds of statecraft and scholarship’, and the conference itself continued to eulogise what al-Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Negm had decried – namely the Camp David Accords and their alleged ‘success’ in dealing with Israel. The famous duo would be again arrested in the 1981 clampdown against the anti-Camp David opposition, which included the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III.

However, it is not just Hafiz al-Mirazi and proponents of the theory of an endogenous Middle Eastern ‘authoritarianism’ who mischaracterise what the board of trustees of AUC did. As a theory and literature, this notion of Middle Eastern authoritarianism does not allow for other explanations, but more importantly, it does not appreciate the salience of colonial and imperial dynamics. Instead, it might be helpful to investigate how AUC was first founded in Egypt. In the same sense that the founding of Harvard was a British colonial act by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, could AUC’s colonial origins have resulted in a genealogy and dynamic that stifles – or rather controls – academic freedom?

Colonial Discipline

In 1926 the question of the ‘Egyptian University’ was hot on the minds of the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Lord Allenby. Authorities had uncovered ‘conclusive evidence… [that shows] the complete duplicity of the [Egyptian] King with regard to the University’, after London had received assurances that the deans and president of the Egyptian University would not be appointed without consultation with the British High Commissioner. Upon discovering this promise was not being kept, they decided to act. A letter from the British Residency in Cairo put it bleakly: ‘His Majesty appears to have given instructions behind Lord Allenby’s back that no Englishman was on any account to be admitted to the faculties of Law or Arts.’

The British were not concerned whether this institution of education succeed, and in fact had viewed it as a failure. Charles Saroléa, a Belgian visiting professor from the University of Edinburgh, volunteered his services in quelling dissent at the Egyptian University, hoping to get an appointment as a rector. In his report to the High Residency, Saroléa emphasised his wartime activities in running anti-German and later anti-Bolshevik periodicals to make his case. A professor of contemporary history, he actively blurred the lines between history and politics. In his report Saroléa argued that ‘the University had conspicuously failed in training their students for their future careers.’ What mattered was the question of discipline of students and the student movement.

Saroléa was clear about the roots of this problem ‘[n]othing could well be more like a Bolshevist classroom than an Egyptian classroom, when the students happen to be on strike.’ What he sought to underlie was that ‘teachers, lawyers and journalists have almost professional reasons for engaging in revolutionary agitation and propaganda.’ Saroléa’s proposal was to weed out these ideas before the students graduated and became part of the professional class.

The British ended up rejecting most of his recommendations, such as the hiring of European professors to oversee propaganda and education at the University. Of the recommendations that the British seemed to have taken on board was the degree of discipline that had to be followed and the corresponding educational approach. This, the report stated, had to accommodate itself to the type of subject: ‘[T]he Egyptian student has the curious type of slackness which is, I fear, common enough among English students.’ After explaining the similarities between the English student and the Egyptian student, the report added how the British system of education had attended to this ‘slackness’:

The English education does not aim so exclusively at high intellectual attainment as does the French. It tries to inculcate discipline into the student and this is what the Egyptian wants more than anything else.

This was among the main points that the British Residency agreed with and forwarded in its own recommendations. The objective was not to foster academic excellence or progress, but rather to maintain discipline. How was this to be achieved? According to Saroléa, the Egyptian University had to rely on another form of expertise in the region; that at the American University in Cairo.

Saroléa argued that ‘the American University which is financed by various Churches in the United States is largely run on British lines and has been on the whole an influence of good.’ Having been founded in 1919 it was then about to embark on ‘a big scheme of expansion and the writer of this Report has been invited to advise in the elaboration of the scheme.’ Based on his expertise, Saroléa recommended that it ‘might be worth considering, whether the British Authorities might not give their moral support to the American Institution whose usefulness hitherto has been considerably restricted.’

His words live on till this day, with Ricciardone preferring the discipline of academia to academic discipline. AUC continues to be a colonial outpost filled with contradictions. Having boasted a set of liberal values that prioritise freedom of speech and academic freedom, AUC has been a hotbed of student activism, especially since the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Yet, these set of values remained subservient to, and constrained by, the dictates of the university administration. When both came to clash over the visit of Mike Pompeo the former – as the story of most postcolonial history shows – was compromised in favour of the latter.

Quotes from letters are taken from the Foreign Office archives, The National Archives, Kew Gardens, London.

Karim Maged Malak is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies in Columbia University, New York. He is also a Contributing Editor at ‘borderlines’; the online e-zine of the Journal of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. He can be reached at and tweets at @KarimMaged

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Jack McGinn

Jack is the Communications Coordinator at the LSE Middle East Centre. He manages the blog and edits the paper series.

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