How Egypt's Revolution Looked From the American University in Cairo

An independent college located 45 minutes from Tahrir Square, the American University in Cairo offers education in the liberal arts to students from across Egypt and around the world -- many of whom participated in the recent uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak. During a visit last week to Washington, D.C., AUC President Lisa Anderson spoke with The Atlantic about the university's distinctive relationship to the revolution, how Egypt has been "politicized," and why the average American should care about what happens in the region.

How would you describe the university's mission?
We are a profoundly, fundamentally liberal arts university devoted to the kind of education which we believe makes the graduates more nimble, more socially responsible, better prepared to be citizens than had they simply had the kind of technical education they would've gotten at a national university in Egypt.

Who are your students?

Eighty-five percent are Egyptians and many of the rest come from the region. There are as many as 500 American study abroad students. They come both because the university's in Cairo and they expect to take classes with Egyptians. Applications are up because students in Egypt see AUC as a place that produced many of the interesting minds of the democratization questions, the protests, so forth and so on. It's also very glamorous right now.

What parts of Egyptian society do your students come from?

Historically, AUC drew most of its students from a fairly narrow slice of the elite and that was partially because those were the students who had access to English education before the university -- typically in a private school. Now there's more English education in the public schools. Our scholarship program also brings two students from the 29 governates to AUC.
What's your sense of the students' political orientation?

I actually think that most Egyptian students were pretty apolitical until quite recently. There were careerists who were interested in politics, but the opportunity for people who were not going to be career politicians to be interested in politics was pretty limited. Civic-minded students were involved with NGOs and social service programs but they weren't really political. Now everybody and his grandmother is political. All of Egypt has been politicized: the faculty has been politicized, everybody. It's unclear where people will settle down. There is no clear sense of what the political spectrum is.

It's often said that young, unemployed, but highly educated Egyptians were a driving force behind the revolution. How true is that?

I am actually persuaded that these protests, as some of the protesters say, are about dignity. That's not unrelated to having been overeducated and underemployed, but it is about a sense that the governments of this part of the world stopped paying attention to their citizens. They stopped serving them, stopped caring about them, and the citizens finally said, "No."

The evidence of the contemptuousness and the neglectfulness of the governments are things like educational systems that were not reformed to address the needs of new labor markets and labor markets that weren't adequately invested in so that people had enough jobs. Those were, in the estimate of most of the protesters, the symptom of the underlying problem of unaccountable, contemptuous government.

All of the parents of Egypt are proud of their children: they're all proud that these young people could express something they had failed to express. They had, themselves, slowly grown accustomed to being neglected and the young people said: "No, that's not OK." But the parents are enormously gratified by what has essentially redeemed the investment in their children.

How did the university navigate the revolution?

Before the revolution, there was a modus vivendi that the administration had developed over decades of how to interact with government authorities. In the U.S., the default answer is yes. In Egypt, the default answer was no -- unless you had permission to do it, you couldn't.

We have moved in the course of the last six weeks, from the historical Egyptian position to a de facto American position. Many of the restrictions of the past have been abandoned by the central government.

How did it feel as a university president and a scholar of international politics to be in Cairo as the revolution unfolded?

I was the luckiest person in the world. Can you imagine? Someone who has written about the region, written about democracy, written about higher education -- where else would you want to be? It was perfect.

Why is the turmoil across the region something the average American should care about, aside from what happens to oil prices?

I think the power of the models that we unreflectively enjoy -- free expression, accountable government, educational institutions that require us to think for ourselves -- the more other people in the world appreciate that, benefit from it, the better off we are in the world because it is something that is viewed as one of the most powerful advantages that the United States has.

People complain about American policy all the time, but they love American education here. Everybody wants to study in the United States. Everybody knows there's something magic about that. This expands that window hugely and how could we not benefit from that?