Science in Egypt Two Years After the Arab Spring: An Interview with Editor Ashraf Amin

Ashraf Amin

What is Germany’s role in science in Egypt, and how does it coincide with the changes in government in the years since the Arab Spring? berlinSCI interviews the head of the Science Department of Egypt’s most-circulated daily newspaper about the state of scientific research in a tense political landscape.

Georg Schütte held a small scientific conference in Cairo two months after the deposition of Hosni Mubarak. It was May of 2011 and Schütte, the State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, together with Amr Salama, the then Egyptian Minister of Higher Education and Research, wanted to discuss the role that science and technology could play in democratic reforms in the Arab world during a tide of political uprisings.

The small gathering may be more significant not for what it accomplished but for what it symbolized. Germany’s ongoing scientific relationship, even during political instability, was viewed by Egyptian researchers as the kind of goodwill diplomacy that could establish a foundation for future scientific and economic partnership.

So it may not be surprising that this year — and just six months after Egyptians elected Mohamed Morsi as their president — Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Morsi and members of the Egyptian Businessmen Forum in Berlin to sign a renewable energy agreement with the Desertec Foundation. Desertec is expected to supply Europe with 20 percent of its renewable electricity needs by 2050 and at an estimated cost of 400 billion euros ($525 billion).

However, other scientific ventures affiliated with business development goals have stagnated in the country. In 2011, the Egyptian cabinet unanimously approved the construction of Zewail City of Science and Technology, a technology park to be located in the suburbs of Cairo. The plan was hatched 14 years ago by Nobel Laureate and California Institute of Technology professor Ahmed Zewail to build a science city that would teach students modern sciences to help them compete internationally. Construction has yet to begin two years beyond the new government’s approval of Zewail City, the second time the project has stalled since 2000.

And Salama, the former Egyptian Minister of Higher Education and Research, faced criticism for returning 1 billion EGP of a 1.3 billion ($190,000,000) higher-education budget.

In recent months, nearly 10 million citizens have signed petitions calling for Morsi to resign, and it is widely speculated that a new revolution against the president’s political party might begin this week.

Ashraf Amin is Head of the Science Department for Al-Ahram, Egypt’s most widely read newspaper. In an interview with berlinSCI, he discusses science in a post-Mubarak society and how the Egyptian newspaper can help the public understand the importance of scientific research for the nation, even during political struggles.

Thanks for chatting with me via Skype. I guess the most obvious question is to what extent do media in Egypt cover science?

I can speak for my paper. Al-Ahram is the longest-running newspaper in Egypt — more than 137 years old — and it was the first paper in the Arab world to start a science section. I started working at the paper in 1998, and at the time we mostly ran stories about such topics as basic science and what student engineers were accomplishing. But of course we’ve been a paper in transition, and we then established a weekly health page, because we knew it was something a general audience could find very readable.

The paper currently has three scientific pages: one on the environment, one on sci-technology, which I edit, and the other is on health. The three pages come out once a week. We make it also a point to promote young innovators in Egypt. When you combine the total number of people who work on the sections, we have 10 full-time staff, but in combination with our freelancers, about 20 people cover daily science. Al-Ahram also has a reporter who covers Egypt’s department of agriculture.

Since the Egyptian Revolution, how has the new government promoted the development of scientific institutions?

It was an amazing time in the first days out of the revolution. So much possibility, especially for science. We have the first president of an Arab country that is also an engineer. And the new government has established a science and technology office, though the communication between that office and the president’s may not always be a fluid one.

Another promising sign under this administration was the newly written Egyptian constitution that stated science would have a more prominent position within government. However, there was no clear statement of the role scientists would play in this government and how much of the GDP would be taken out to support science and technology. At this point it just depends on scientific lobbying efforts.

Zewail City… where is this project now?

When the regime switched to the current constitutional government, there was a power switch and endless fights in courts over who had control of Zewail City. Ahmed Zewail had gone to court and tried to appeal so that he could have control over this project rather than the new government. Zewail is kind of an icon in Egypt. This whole debate on who controls this city has been on a lot of talk shows, and it was one of the top science stories of the year in Egypt.

But the court finally gave the right back to Nile University to own back the land and the buildings, but the State didn’t implement the court’s rule. That created more frustration and violent actions between the Zewail guards and Nile University students who kept waiting the government for weeks to put the rule in place. In addition, some information got leaked that Zewail is now getting treatment in the U.S. for bone cancer. The news was ‘smartly’ used to support Zewail’s position in the media as the hero who is giving his life for science in Egypt.

What have been some of the challenges for you as an editor communicating science to a general audience?

One of the major advances in getting science communication to the general public has been the penetration of mobile devices. At 106 percent usage, Egypt is actually in over capacity in providing mobile phone services. Also, the number of Facebook users has doubled since the revolution. And it seems that potentially every group in Egypt has a Facebook page.

The challenge for a journalist is to be heard over everyone who resides in their own social media bubble, where so-called ‘facts’ are spread, unverified. So the good thing is that social media and technology give people more access to information, but the flow of rumors is faster than ever. Anything can easily go viral in Egypt.

As a newspaper, you have to cover the social media rumor mill. Before, you were able to filter these rumors and gossip in your role as an editor. Now these rumors and gossip can spread so quickly that you have to respond, and if you don’t, some other paper will. It’s kind of like a soap opera. Sure, our paper uses SMS for breaking news, but we could better develop our social media resources. Ultimately, it’s important for us to double check, because our credibility is most important.

It’s estimated 28 percent of Egyptians are considered illiterate. What does that mean for how you communicate science?

As for accessing that somewhat illiterate market that may or may not have a cell phone, we write a number of stories that relate to a rural setting. For instance, one article we published recently involved the use of new biotechnologies that would increase the production of rice seeds with less water.

You may have endless of funny stories (spread through storytelling) of the non-traditional drugs the Bedouin use, but there’s definitely a lack of science, health culture. The newspaper staff is trying to change that.

Science research is successful, of course, when the infrastructure is there. Can you comment on infrastructure changes happening in your country?

I make it a point to cover biotech labs in Egypt to explain not only the experiments but the economic influence these labs can have.

Germany has actually been a crucial partner in helping establish science infrastructure in the city. The DAAD office has been focused on expanding connections with Egyptian scientists, and what’s particularly interesting in Germany’s relationship to Egypt, as opposed to France or the United States, is the fact that Germany has been invested in graduate and post grad research instead of undergraduate studies.

This has meant very good collaborative projects with businessmen in the country and often these projects are far from the capital. For instance, the TU in Berlin, has a project near the Red Sea region. Germany also makes sure to include a lot of Egyptians on the boards of German technical universities to get a broader perspective.

Unfortunately, there are some cultural challenges that prevent scientific development. There was a big study recently that said most of Egyptian investors and inventors would rather import goods from China than to enhance the availability of resources within their own country. Another concern doesn’t have to do with the production of great scientific minds, but rather the management of science and technology. We don’t have this field of study and there isn’t a culture within the university environment to get a student to ‘create an idea.’ We don’t know how to commercialize science well.

In many respects, things are done by chance. Some of the businesses that are run in Egypt are family run, and this can pose a problem if the hierarchy of the family dies. Often a relative hasn’t been properly trained to take over (the business). You have an insular network of successful people within the capital, but it doesn’t go far beyond that. However, there are NGOs that work on technology strategies with engineers, and that may be of help.

Where would you like to take the future of scientific coverage at Al-Ahram?

As for the future of the paper, we would like to reach out to a younger audience and start covering student groups, such as the Youssef Ziedan monthly Salon, run by the well-known academic who selects subjects from philosophy and history to understand the current situation in Egypt and the MENA region.

Ashraf Amin can be reached on Twitter.

Interview by Claudia Adrien

The article was originally published June 25, 2013 at berlinsci.com.

Like what you read? Give berlinSCI a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.