Snow Days in the Desert

Many of you have emailed me  to ask is the American University in Cairo (AUC) is still closed, and I am sorry to say that the answer is yes. It has been over a week now that students have chained all of the University gates closed, blocking access to the new campus for all students, faculty and staff.  The students’ demands are not always clear, but they center on asking for this year’s 7% tuition increase to be rescinded, and sometimes include demands for better faculty, higher pay for AUC staff, amnesty for the student leaders of this strike, increased budget transparency and more student voice in all decisions. Students suggest that the University wastes money on “leakage,” which I think means corruption. Though some faculty have urged President Lisa Anderson to call in the police to remove the students (there are not really that many of them at the gates), she has understandably decided not to do so for fear of violence. The last thing AUC needs at this point in history is images on CNN of Egyptians with guns fighting with young people.

Some background is important here.  AUC is the elite institution of Egypt, if not the region. It represents an attempt to export our belief in the value of a liberal arts education to this part of the world. It is by regional standards outrageously expensive, with full cost at  nearly $30,000 a year, or more than 8 times the average Egyptian yearly salary. (For comparison, that would be like charging about $320,000 a year at Duke.)  Three years ago, AUC opened a new campus in New Cairo, about 10 miles from downtown.  The total cost of the campus was $400 million, $100 million of which was paid by the US government. There is a plaque on campus that thanks the US for its support, and random computers and printers have a USAID sticker on then, reading “a gift from the American people.” Also, as you can see here, there is a plaque that thanks Hosni Mubarak:


While I was doing some reading on the history of AUC, I came across this hacked Wikipedia entry. Read the first paragraph carefully:

Interestingly, in the past students have raised issues about AUC’s relationship with the Mubarak regime.  Here is an article from last year about this. Mubarek’s wife and children  attended AUC and until the revolution it had a Susanne Mubarak Hall. I believe it is now called just room P071.

When it is not locked down by students, one can start their day on campus with a decaf skim latte and have lunch at Subway or McDonald’s, though I am happy to report that the new Beirut Express that recently opened on campus behind my office serves wonderful koshary and shwarma where one can get lunch for less than half the price of the ubiquitous American chains. The choice is yours! The architecture is breathtaking, respectful of the style of the region with a subtle nod to the colors and tile of a boutique hotel


Judy on campus during new faculty orientation

I did see many of my students yesterday, asking them to meet me in a room at the old AUC Campus off of Tahrir Square. About half of them came. The topics of my class – leadership, the relationship between the liberal arts and democracy, civic engagement – are all so ripe for conversation, and for making this a teachable moment. And I continue to search for the real causes and meaning of this strike, as I sense that many of the students can indeed pay the tuition increase and that there is something deeper and more profound going on here.  I have asked my colleagues and students about this and have gotten varying responses. Some believe, as I suggested in my post last week, that indeed this is an extension of the revolution, that these young people who had all efforts at protest and criticism suppressed are now – without fear – taking advantage of every opportunity to oppose “the man.” I think that by physically blocking the campus they have gone too far, but I do understand it.

I also asked my students if there is a certain anti-Americanism implicit in this student strike. They did not think so, but I am not sure I agree. AUC pays different wages to Egyptians and foreign nationals. My feeling is that these students have a love/hate relationship with this school – that they love its physical presence and freedom to explore the life of the mind, and the ticket that it represents to good jobs, but are troubled by its explicit link to the US and its history of support for the old regime and damaging meddling in the region. So just as the protests across the region are about more than the absurd film that became the focus, so this too is about more. And it is for this reason that it is crucial that we reopen the University as soon as possible, because I cannot imagine a better place to have this conversation in a free and open way. To me, these closed gates equal closed minds. If a liberal arts education does nothing else, it helps us to develop empathy, to see how others see things and to take that into account when we act. To close the campus when we most need it open is perhaps the most tragic part of this episode.

I can see how many of my students are seeing this  strike as a break, the way we at home perhaps treat snow days. I never did like snow days, especially in the desert. I’ll keep you posted on developments.


A note from the AUC Provost

Received this today and it struck me as a voice of reason.
Dear Colleagues — The AUC Faculty,
These are sad days in the long and bright life of AUC.  The action taken by a few students to block access and occupy the premises of the New Cairo campus cannot be justified under any circumstances.  Over the past few days, and especially yesterday, we have witnessed heroic and courageous efforts by our faculty (staff and students alike) who tried to force themselves into their “own” campus.  While this is understood and appreciated, we are fearful for your own safety.  Accordingly, the University Cabinet has decided to suspend all operations (including all academic activities) at the New Cairo campus until further notice.  I am writing to confirm that the New Cairo campus is closed today; please do not go to the campus.  A similar message is being sent by the other Vice Presidents to their constituencies.
Please be assured that we are doing our best to resolve the conflict, but only by upholding the valued principles that made AUC such a great university over its 93-year history.  If and when we can operate the campus safely, you will be notified.  In the meantime, I will continue to update you by short messages as this.
With my best regards,
Medhat Haroun


I have been wanting to write something here about the American University of Cairo, where I am serving as a Senior Fellow at John Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement. I will have more to say later about the mission of a liberal arts education here in Egypt, but just wanted to post now that the University has been closed for three days by students who are protesting this year’s 7% tuition increase.  Because this campus takes security very seriously (I have to show my ID and go through a metal detector each time I enter the campus) there are a limited number of gates that allow entry to campus. As a result, it is easy to keep secure AND I am learning relatively easy for students to lock people out. Student protestors have put chains with locks on all of the gates, and despite negotiations between the Administration and students, no progress has been made.  Though the cause is hardly as noble, it seems that just as the Tahrir protesters would not leave until their singular demand – Mubarek must step down -was met, the students say they will not open the campus until the tuition increase is rescinded.

For now, AUC has officially suspended operations. I am frustrated not to be able to continue my class and am contemplating meeting them off campus. Civic Engagement? Not sure about that.

Another blocked gate

AUC students block a gate

I Need A Miracle Every Day

This is a challenging city to figure out. In a quest for increased understanding, I am reading Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control by David Sims, which despite its title actually marvels at how things kind of work in what some people claim is Africa’s largest city. Sims offers some interesting explanations for what I observe every day, for example why it seem that 50% of the apartment buildings along the road on my 45 to 90 minute bus trip to the American University in Cairo are half built and largely empty. (The explanation is complicated, but has to do with how housing is financed, the lack of cars, real estate speculation, mass transit and poorly thought out zoning regulations.)

So I am still agnostic on whether this place works or not, though leaning to yes. That does kind of amaze me given the density of this quickly growing city of 17 million people and the fact that we are in the desert. And thought it can sometimes be maddening to try to get something done quickly, taking deep breaths and appreciating when things do work helps a lot.

When we first arrived here, I withdrew money from the ATM in our neighborhood, right in front of the   Cairo American College where Noah goes to high school. I got my money, but alas my card was not returned.  I stood around for a while, watched another person use the machine, and then called the phone number on the machine to see what I should do. My lack of Arabic did not help, though I think the man on the phone suggested that I wait a few days and go to an address down town. That seemed both complicated and a long shot, so I called my bank at home and they told me they would have a card Fed Exed to me in 5-7 days.

The next day, while on the AUC campus, I decided to stop in to the CIB bank where I had been earlier to open an Egyptian account.  I saw the man who I had met the day before and told him my predicament. He listened carefully and began to repeatedly call a number that seemed to be busy. After about 15 minutes, he reached somebody, spoke for a while, and hung up. “Mr. Eric,” he said with a half smile, “I will have your card in a few days. Please give me your phone number and I will call you.” I hoped, and wondered, does this place work well enough that this will happen? I don’t know that it would have happened in Durham.

So as Sims concludes about Cairo:

And it is a near miracle that such a huge agglomeration has been able to grow from four to seventeen million inhabitants in less than fifty years on its own, so to speak, counter to government intentions and plans….[there are] efficient neighborhoods where two-thirds of all Cairenes live and almost half of them work, where housing is minimally acceptable and quite affordable….and a majority of inhabitants can live modestly respectable lives.

Back to me. I had grave doubts I would ever see my card again.  You mean to tell me that in this city of 17 going on 18 million people, that somebody will find my ATM card at a machine that is 45 minutes from here and deliver it to campus? Please! Well, I stopped in to the bank every day on my way to the office, checked and he told me he would call me. And indeed, 4 days after I first made the request, this very kind bank employee handed my ATM to me.  “Shokrun,” I gushed, “ma salaama.” It does kind of work, a little differently perhaps, but it does kind of work.

(Note: Just learned that Leah, on her way back from Ain Soknah on the Red Sea, is stuck on a bus with other AUC students at a stand still on the highway because of an accident that will not be cleared until tomorrow. They are turning around and going back to the hotel.  OK, I did say kinf of work.)

Summers Fade and Roses Die

Despite the images on US television, it has been a quiet weekend for us here in Cairo. I have been thinking a lot about the images CNN shows, and they are of course at one level real and important. And as US embassies and other symbols of American influence are the scenes of protests and violence, the images take on an added intensity.  It did remind me that Wolf Blitzer’s regular show is called “The Situation Room,” and he is always breathless no matter what he is reporting on. (I have always thought he would have made a fine weatherman). Do you remember when the situation room was reserved for the President when he met with his national security advisors when there was a real global crisis?

The Morsi government has come under criticism from the West for its response to the embassy protests here. Commentators have said that he and his government stressed the negative aspects of the film rather than the need to protect US interests. I find the prevalence of this reaction to be incredibly myopic. Morsi is building domestic support for his presidency, and whether one believes in free speech or not, he had to outright condemn the idiocy of this film. He and others from the Muslim Brotherhood quickly condemned the violence and as of tonight have secured the Embassy and the surrounding streets. Seems like a job pretty well done to me, though perhaps not according to the timeline we would have preferred.

I was pretty surprised at Obama’s statement that Egypt is not an ally. And I was not surprised that those around him had to quickly retract this statement to stress that indeed we were partners. This statement undermined Morsi domestically at a time when this was a very dangerous thing to do. Obama does not usually make mistakes like this, but the heat of the campaign season seems to have gotten the best of him on here.

It is instructive to reflect back on Obama’s soaring speech that he gave here in Cairo June of 2009, a speech I was moved by at the time for its idealism and vision. It was also the first reading that I assigned to my class here. In the speech, Obama said:

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.

(Do read the whole speech at the link above, it is one of his best.)

I guess sometimes you need to be careful about what you ask for. Despite widespread disagreement about politics here, most agree that the last elections in Egypt were fair and democratic.

So as a calm descending on Cairo while the US withdraws non-essential personnel from Sudan and Tunisia, I suspect that these protests that were ignited by this offensive movie (it is still blocked here so I have not seen it) have and will morph into a more general expression of opposition to the US for its legacy of support for repressive regimes across the region and of frustration for the widespread hardship that life in this region brings to so many. For a nuanced and balanced discussion of this, I encourage you to delete CNN from your favorites and to add AlJazeera, and this discussion of the recent events in the region.

All seasons pass, don’t they? I will watch with great curiosity as the Arab Spring gives way to summer, fall and winter. To quote John Barlow from Weather Report Suite , who wrote many songs for the Grateful Dead:

Winter rain, tell me why.

Summers fade and roses die.

The answer came; the wind and rain.

Waiting on Friday Prayers

Friday mornings are incredibly quiet here in Maadi, our leafy section of town that is about 45 minutes from the scene of protests that many of  you are seeing on CNN.  As I look at my street from our 9th floor balcony, absent are the bowabs washing cars of the dust and sand they have accumulated over night and the taxicabs that drive and honk their way up and down our street. 

Thanks to all of you who have contacted Judy and me to express your concerns. We are fine, largely unaffected by the protests near the embassy, and of course watching things closely with the hope and belief that cooler heads will prevail, but one never knows. Large protests are expected in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt today.

Judy and I did a tour of three amazing mosques yesterday, all with their unique styles and histories. The last one we visited, Al Rifa’i, was the newest, built in 1912 and more ornate than any mosque I had seen, with marble all over. I was surprised to see that in the back, behind a set of locked doors opened for us by the mosque’s caretakers, was the tomb of the Shah of Iran.  He went into exile here after the Iranian Revolution. I shared with Judy my memories of having the Boston Globe delivered to my dorm room at Tufts, learning of the hostage crisis that was perhaps my first intimate view of how Middle East politics can play out in the streets of this region.

We also took our first Arabic lessons yesterday at a language school two minutes from our apartment. My brain still hurts. I have always considered myself not to be good at languages and have not tried to learn a new one in over 30 years. I find Arabic to be a beautiful language in both its written and spoken form, and hope to make some progress over the coming months. Over mesh (“old cheese”) and bread and honey and cucumbers and tomatoes after the class, we spoke of the current protests. Mo’men (our  teacher) was concerned and slighty apologetic and hoping this would blow over. He did suggest that we not identify ourselves as Americans. I think most interestingly, he expressed puzzlement at how it is allowed for somebody to make a film like this.  “I respect Dr. Eric,” and “we should respect prophets,” he shared. Noah, Judy and I expressed our belief in freedom of speech, and Mo’men nodded, clearly not seeing this as we did.  A similar sentiment is expressed by a spokesperson of the Muslim Brotherhood in his letter to the New York Times yesterday. In what I see as a very reasonable and politically astute letter, he expresses that the film was somehow an “abuse” of the law.  It is fascinating to be in this emerging democracy (?) and to have discussions about the limits of free speech, as I am of course reminded of all of the conversations we have about this at home. How do you feel about yelling fire in a crowded theatre?

We will stay close to home today. I hope to go for a run and visit an Island off of the Corniche in Maadi. I have some preparation work to do for my class, and I will continue to write about what it is like here and what we are seeing. Just remember CNN is but one lens on the world, and a pretty skewed one at that.  We will see what happens with Friday noon prayers today, they are starting now as I hear the call to prayer.

Mosque Al Rafa’i where the Shah of Iran is buried

I’m Sorry

I had not realized that Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the 9./11 attacks, was from Cairo.  9/11 was on my mind a bit yesterday, and hearing the omnipresent call to prayer did remind me where I am this fall on this day of infamy.

In the afternoon, I had forgotten it was 9/11, but was reminded when Judy I and went to Al Diwan, a language school with a branch office just five minutes from our apartment. It has become clear to us that we need more than the dozen Arabic words that we learned weeks ago during the faculty orientation. These words have served as wonderful introductions to the people we meet, but we need more, so Judy and I plan to spend 4 hours a week studying this beautiful but at this point mysterious language. Leah is making great progress with her Arabic at AUC.

As we were signing the registration form for the class, filling out addresses, passport numbers and dates, and finishing our tea flavored with mint from the Al Diwan garden, Judy noted that today was 9/11, and she communicated this to the man who is the manager of the school and soon to be our teacher. His eyes looked down as he acknowledged that he understood what she was saying. “I’m sorry,” he said, and repeated that once or twice more as we realized together the sadness we all felt at that moment.

We paid our bill, expressed our excitement about working together, and arrived home to find Leah on the sofa with her computer, listening to recordings of an attendant from flight 11 and a woman trapped in the World Trade Center. I had not heard these before, and found them deeply disturbing, a harrowing reminder of hate gone awry. And to realize that Atta had walked these streets added a new perspective to this day that will always conjure sad memories and remind us all where we were then, and for me this year, underscore where I am now.

I have wondered, as have friends and family, how it is that  my family and I ended up in Cairo for my sabbatical.  I can’t say that I really weighed various options, all that I know is that when I visited this city in the summer of 2011 it got under my skin in a serious way.  When I checked out of the Marriott hotel after my five-day visit,  the bellman who loaded my bag into the taxi urged me to return. “Please go home,” he said, “and tell your children and grandchildren (sic!) that this is a safe city and that they should come here.” I noted his plea, and a plea it was as the 1200 room hotel was nearly empty in the wake of the political turmoil that pervaded the city.

But I suppose it was not just the bellman’s urgings that convinced me to want to go back. This is a part of the world that I know very little about and that feels very foreign to me.  And yet is a crucially important part of the world not only to the United States but also for global stability. 1.3 million Muslims and  lots of barrels of oil are just two factors in this region’s centrality to world politics.

In my work building experiential programs for undergraduates over the last 15 years, I have found that the most challenging and impactful environments for students are in places that are undergoing rapid political,l economic and social change. Places like post-apartheid South Africa and post-Katrina New Orleans are just two examples of such places, as if of course Egypt.  Despite the slow pace of history, places inthe midst of these kinsd of changes often seem hyper-charged, with time accelerated.

I also reflect a bit on the fact that I used to be scholar of the Cold War, and that as John Meaersheimer warned in his provacative 1996 article “Why we will soon miss the Cold War,” I do miss the Cold War a bit, that raison d’etre to be concerned about the course of U.S. foreign policy and in a very real way the future of the planet.  And with the horribly damaging and short-sighted wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, this region is in fact the location of the  new Cold War and too many hot wars, and in some way I guess I just want to be part of it, witness it and learn about it.  It is terribly important to have Americans in this part of the world without guns in their hands.

Finally, I am an American Jew.  This is not something that I am advertising while I am here, but it an essential part of my identity. As such, I need to understand this part of the world much better, and I hope, over time, for this part of the world to understand jews much better as well.   The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is always cited here as being at the roots of so many of this region’s problems. And though I have no doubt that this of often exaggerated, and that there is plenty of blame to go around for the poverty and conflict that is part of so much of this region, it does often appear to be front and center.

I don’t much believe in synchronicity, but just last month as I was emptying my night table at home in preparation for our semester in Cairo, I came across a father’s day card that Leah had written for me when I was on my visit to Cairo in 2011.  It read in part “I wish I could be with you in the Middle East, but I know that one day we will be there together.” And so we are. yet another reason to be here.

Judy, Leah and I were at that same  Marriott last weekend, and I looked for that bellman, as I wanted to tell him my story and to tell him that I was indeed back.  “Welcome back,” he said as I approached him in the very same place I left him 15 months ago.  This is a phrase that many in the tourist industry say to foreigners, so I am not convinced that he remembered me. But I remembered him, and was so happy to make his acquaintance once again.

Greetings from Tahrir


Greetings from Tahrir Square. We spent much of yesterday morning walking along and across the Nile river, beginning in the tree lined quiet of  the Zamalek neighborhood, and finishing in Tarhir Square. The square itself looks more like a field after a really good Grateful Dead concert than the epicenter of a revolution. It exudes a feeling of protest fatigue.

Politics are at or near the surface of so many of our conversations here.  There are those places that you go in the world where events are always described as before of after. Sometimes these are the result of a natural disaster, say in New Orleans after Katrina or Haiti after the earthquake. In those place, not only does history seem to get divided by these natural disasters, but also people want to tell you – in many cases need to tell you – where they were when it happened.  Here in Egypt, people talk about before the revolution and after the revolution, not only to perhaps tell you something about their lives but also to explain how things are.  Everything from petty crime to the amount of trash in the streets is linked to the revolution in some way. I am reminded though that history unfolds with or without cataclysmic events, and we are here as it continues to unfold, albeit slowly.

People of course have very strong feelings about what happened here over those 18 days. A coup, a revolution, a transfer of power? Most cab drivers do point out to us where Mubarak was hospitalized, and I could not help but notice that yesterday our cab driver referred to him as President Hosni Mubarak, suggesting perhaps some reverence for the man who led this country for thirty years. There are plaques that remain posted both at the new campus of the American University of Cairo and the Marriott hotel that honor him.  The course of the revolution, which is indeed what most people call what happened here, will determine what happens to those plaques, just as Iraqis decided what to do with statues of Saddam Hussein or the people of Eastern Europe and the former USSR decided what to do with the statues of so many of their leaders. I can’t help but think that these are very important decisions for these societies in transition.

A women we met who runs the Community Service Association here, a center in our neighborhood that is designed to allow ex-pats to feel as if they have never left home by providing excellent lattes and spinning classes told me and Judy that of course everybody knows that Shafiq (Mubarak’s last prime minister and the Presidential candidate who most represented continuity with the past)really got more votes than Morsi, but that the military knew that a Shafiq victory would lead to riots in the streets so Morsi was given the presidency.  To me, a highly unlikely scenario, but so interesting from a person who clearly misses the status quo and needs an explanation for its disappearance. And the family we met while smoking sheesha overlooking the Mediterranean on our weekend in Alexandria not only expressed to us their support for Obama, but their hope and at least open mindedness for President Morsi.

It is a bit odd for me to be here during the political conventions.  I remember so well when I attended the 1980 Democratic Convention in New York City when Jimmy Carter was nominated for a second time.  Ted Kennedy gave the speech of his lifetime at the convention reminding us that “the dream endures.” It was too little too late for him, but it rocked Madison Square Garden almost as much as Phil Lesh’s bass. So I have not watched all of the speeches but have read accounts of them, and saw some of each. It did make me think of the disappointment so many feel about Obama, a man who promised change and has delivered only some. The parallels to politics here are also important. The hopes of  those who risked and gave their lives in Tahrir and who  believed in what might be called liberal reform are not close to being realized here.  In a sense, the revolution was taken over by more religious forces, who though were not at the forefront of the revolution were the best organized to benefit from it.  Where they take Egypt still is the most important question that remains from the revolution, and I am honored to be able to watch this slowly evolve. I am reminded, both for the US and Egypt, that history is very slow, that the forces for inertia are powerful, and that change can take forever.

My family and I had of course been warned that post-revolution Cairo was not a safe place, and I do not want to jinx the safety and comfort that we have enjoyed since our arrival here nearly 3 weeks ago. Judy and Leah have not been harassed in the streets, at least not any more than Leah experiences in NY. Instead, men who sit on the side of the road are likely to say hello or welcome to Egypt.  We have not been pick-pocketed or groped on Africa’s only subway, but  instead been offered directions, chicklets and seats on very crowded trains. We have not been taken for a ride or ripped off by cab drivers, but instead been welcomed and given tours in broken english of important landmarks.  And we have not yet gotten sick from the food,  even after Judy and enjoyed falaffel, shwarma and fava beans at a gritty take out place downtown.  May this all continue, as we say, inshallah.

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