Book review: AUC and its students — irrepressible bubbles and inevitable politicization

The American University in Cairo occupies a unique position between the US and Egypt, in terms of culture, education and politics. The university has occasionally demonstrated itself as a site where the best potentials of both cultures unfold. In Al-Haraka al-tullabiyya fi al-jami’a al-Amrikiyya (The Student Movement in the American University [in Cairo]), published earlier this year by Al-Kotob Khan, Taher El Moataz Bellah chronicles the creative potential, intelligent activism, and vibrant dissent within AUC’s student movement. He also documents the elite educational establishment’s interaction with this student movement, showing how that relationship can become a nexus for the worst of both worlds as well. 

Written as a series of dispatches from the front lines of student activism, this book probes into the complexity of the struggle, the role of knowledge, and the interplay of both insular campus dynamics and the external political context in the movement. Moataz Bellah’s bold, introspective narrative tracks the rise and fall of the student movement in AUC, with a particular focus on the turbulent period of 2010–2015. Reflections on triumphs and defeats, student mobilization efforts, movement infighting, and outside political circumstances are all weaved together in this engaging historical account. 

This is by no means an outsider’s perspective. As the head of the AUC student union from June 2012 to June 2013, Moataz Bellah was one of the leaders of the student movement, and the book is written as an account from within — a declared attempt to pass on the memory and experience of a particularly vibrant period of campus activism.

Moataz Bellah adopts a bold tone from the outset, emphasizing in the book’s preface that this story contradicts the popular stereotype that AUC students are “farafir” — softies.  He outlines the contours of the student body and asserts that, notwithstanding their many privileges, many AUC students are interested in more than just middle-class consumerism and partying. The book documents the depth of student activism at AUC, from the protests against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which led to several clashes with security forces, to efforts to organize donation caravans to Palestine during the First and Second Intifadas.

In a telling anecdote, Moataz Bellah details how students lied down on the road to block the al-Salam Bridge that leads to Sinai when Egyptian authorities tried to prevent their caravan from crossing into Gaza during the November 2012 Israeli military operation there.

The book begins by painting a sleepy picture of the AUC community on its gleaming new campus. It is a coraled space nestled in Cairo’s burgeoning desert suburbia, complete with environmentally friendly buildings and manicured landscaping, perched in the midst of a new desert suburbia, made of tastelessly pretentious Roman-columned villas and out-of-place copies of North American compounds. How different would the experience have been for AUC students during the January 25 revolution had the university remained in its historical home in Tahrir Square, the very epicenter of the uprising?

It took eight months for what Moataz Bellah terms ‘the winds of January’ to blow 40 km eastward to the new campus, which in September 2011 sparked AUC’s first mass student action in a post-January 25 landscape.

The first battle the book chronicles in detail is set on the new campus before January 2011. The university authorities had closed down one of the campus gates, allegedly as a result of a dispute between the dean of social sciences and the university president. Students began to organize around the issue. They launched a petition calling for the gate to be reopened, which garnered significant support, and protested at the site, leading to sporadic clashes with campus security. When they raised their demands before the administration, they were denied. They then decided to break the gate open themselves. The action ultimately failed and the university administration punished a number of the students involved, expelling some and sentencing others to community service. Yet the incident helped sow the seeds for future collective actions by the student body.

In the months following the January 25 uprising in 2011, student activism on campus escalated, including siding with university workers — particularly the janitorial staff — in their struggle against substandard working conditions and insufficient wages. The students staged a five-day strike in solidarity with the workers, prompting the administration to slightly improve working conditions.

The principle struggle that takes up most of the book is the long-running battle over a steep increase in tuition fees. The university justified the hike by pointing to a budget deficit caused by an erosion in hard currency amid the economic turmoil after the revolution. Moataz Bellah emphasizes that the spirit of January 25 empowered students across the political spectrum, including the conservative and reformist student camps, to become revolutionaries.

The struggle was complex and dramatic, punctuated by several student strikes beginning with the 2010 battle to reopen the only open gate. University administrators closed the gate after a truck broke down in front of it on the second day of the student strike, which administrators claimed was incidental. A number of professors and workers rallied to the striking students’ cause. There was friction between students over tactics and strategy. This period saw infighting between students who did not mind the tuition hikes and those who vehemently opposed them. The strikes even pitted students against parents, some of whom preferred to quietly cover the increase for fear that any confrontation with the university may have consequences that could jeopardize their children’s futures.

As the tuition struggle raged on, it became clear to the students that this was not only a battle of wills and a fight for justice, but a war of information as well. 

The students proposed an alternative budget plan that impressed the then-newly appointed university president and prominent academic, Lisa Anderson. In analyzing the AUC administration’s approach to handling the situation, Moataz Bellah cites Naomi Klein’s thesis in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism that authorities frequently exploit economic shocks to push through controversial policies. Moataz Bellah argues that the administration used the looming budget deficit to ram through a series of tuition hikes and to terminate the contracts of more than 370 janitorial staff, moves it claimed were ‘unavoidable.’ 

In an interesting twist, the author discovered while researching AUC’s tax exemptions and the university president’s salary during a student strike that after a few years of running a budget deficit, the university budget reached a USD$8 million surplus in 2011, the same year as the deficit uproar began, and a $14 million surplus the following year. The long-running battle over tuition illustrates the complexities of the AUC movement and the various fronts on which it engaged. 

In the book, the author comes across as an anti-authoritarian leftist and an unapologetic student activist and leader, who can also be self critical. A sense of his inner voice is on display in the following passage: “This was the most suitable time to call attention to the agreement and to raise students’ awareness of their rights, especially among freshmen. It was a time for revision, analysis, preservation of the historical record, and self-criticism — all for the sake of emerging from the experience having learned as many lessons as possible.” 

In Moataz Bellah’s portrayal of the AUC student movement, we find a collection of individuals and groups that are incohesive, yet not entirely scattered, and unorganized yet collaborative under pressure. The author shows that the students remain unconsumed by their social privilege, and share an interest in improving social conditions in Egypt. It shows how the discrepancy in outlook of various student leaders affects activism. There are vivid stories about professors and members of the administration, some of whose dealings with the student movement epitomize Egyptian-style patriarchy to the point of parody. 

One of the most engaging depictions is the complex figure of Anderson, who, unlike other senior administrators, acts courageously at times, and assumes indefensible stances at others. Another exciting and dramatic depiction is that of prominent anthropology professor Hanan Sabea, known for both her fierce positions on social justice and her critical stance toward student activism. 

Along with its nuanced portrayal of the student movement, the book paints a picture of an administration aggrandized by its own authority which continuously reneges on its promises to students, and takes a profoundly corporatist approach to the budgetary decisions of an educational institution. 

The book shows the administration running the university as a business, putting profit and market forces above all other considerations — including student demands, education quality, and the working conditions of faculty and staff. On several occasions, particularly regarding issues of staff contracts and the diminishing prospects for tenure tracks, we encounter an organization undermining its huge potential by adopting a management style that mirrors arrogant US foreign policymaking, backed by Egyptian authoritarianism to crush all dissent.

That’s not to say that the book is flawless. In terms of narrative, many characters enter without proper introduction, with only first names used at times, and there is a tendency to leave out dates and event timelines, which can leave the reader confused.

The stories in the book show how AUC is affected by wider political contexts, both within Egypt and internationally, despite its efforts to insulate itself. The university mourned the loss of a student, who was an “ultra” football fan, in 2012, when a number of Al-Masry fans attacked Ahly Club ultras at a game in Port Said. Also, several students accused of affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested. The book also begins and ends with attempts to establish an independent umbrella of student unions across Egyptian universities. The security establishment foiled the effort to build the overarching body, and AUC student representatives were only able to form a student union umbrella with one other private university, the German University in Cairo.

The university has remained a contested arena long after the author’s graduation, and both students and the administration itself are prone to politicization. Earlier this year, AUC President Francis J. Ricciardone invited US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo onto campus to give a policy address, in which Pompeo undermined the Arab uprisings and gave implicit support to current autocrats. After the speech, the university’s senate, made up of students, faculty, and administration, passed a vote of no confidence for Ricciardone. The University’s Board of Trustees, however, passed a cynical, unanimous countervote in support of Ricciardone. 

Universities achieve their potential when they are autonomous and allow space to analyze and critique the complex world around them. In the case of AUC, that world is both the US and Egypt, with all the benefits and baggage each entails. With daring self-reflection and openness, this book is an important and welcome read. It portrays AUC as another victim of the neoliberalization of academic institutions, but also as a space of enduring student activism. The value of The Student Movement in the American University is in its attempt to narrate the experiences of a group of student activists through documentation and reflection.

Tarek Ghanem 

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