Published online 8 February 2011 | Nature 470, 147-149 (2011) | doi:10.1038/470147a

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Egypt's youth 'key to revival'

Country's future depends on democracy, education and research reform, say scientists.

Thousands of anti-government protesters, including many students and academics, rally in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.AP/L. Pitarakis

"There is a pool of talent among the youth in Egypt that is unbelievable. They are people who think creatively and critically, who are yearning for the freedom to express themselves, and many of them are those who are leading this revolution." Tarek Khalil, president and provost of the non-profit, independent Nile University in Cairo, is convinced that the country's Facebook generation represents the best chance in decades for the intellectual renaissance of a society that has been rendered moribund and impoverished by the military dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak.

Other Egyptian researchers contacted by Nature share Khalil's views (see 'Scientists speak out'). They emphasize that, with the regime still in place two weeks after anti-Mubarak protests began on 25 January, the most urgent priorities are to halt the regime's crackdowns on protesters, and to ensure that the pro-democracy movement prevails. But in the long term, they say, Egypt's education and science systems must be completely overhauled to help address the root causes of its social and economic woes.

"The current outdated government simply lacks the mindset and vision to strategically support scientific research and lead an innovation-based economy that can compete globally," says Hassan Azzazy, a chemist at the non-profit, private American University in Cairo.

In an editorial in the International Herald Tribune last week, Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-born researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who won the 1999 Nobel chemistry prize, slammed the regime for presiding over a long deterioration in Egypt's education and research systems. Zewail returned to his home country last week to join a group of prominent Egyptian intellectuals who are drawing up plans, including constitutional reforms, to try to engineer a peaceful transition to democracy. Last week, Zewail — who is also one of six science envoys appointed by US President Barack Obama to Muslim-majority countries — called on Mubarak to step aside, to help Egypt make a fresh start.

Zewail's assessment of Egypt's decrepit education and research systems is accurate, says Khalil. Intake at the public universities — which offer students free tuition — has expanded vastly since the 1960s, in line with the country's rapidly growing population. But budgets have remained flat, salaries have stagnated, and training of teachers and lecturers has been neglected, he explains. "Egyptian public universities currently do not foster productivity or innovation," adds Azzazy. "They are simply assembly lines that produce thousands of unskilled graduates every year."

As is the case in other authoritarian Arab regimes (see Nature 469, 453–454; 2011), political patronage and nepotism are rife in senior university appointments. The suppression of human rights, and the poor conditions for science, have also led to a brain drain to the West, and more recently to Gulf states that are investing in research. According to the Science Citation Index, Egypt produced 5,140 scientific papers in 2010. Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, published twice that number alone.

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Egypt's research has also been plagued by a lack of funding, with research spending amounting to just 0.2–0.3% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP; see graphic). "Mubarak wasn't interested in science; he didn't have the vision or the ability to understand what development takes," says Khalil. "Hopefully, we will get an Egypt that will appreciate research and education. This has to be a top priority for the country."

Fostering inter­national collaborations could be a key factor in achieving that. But the unrest has already led to uncertainty about Egypt's role in the SESAME synchrotron project in Jordan (see 'Synchrotron faces setback'), and looting at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and other cultural-heritage sites has raised archaeologists' fears over the security of the country's antiquities and possible threats to research (see 'The fight to protect an ancient heritage').

But it is the denial of freedoms under the Mubarak regime that Egyptian scientists see as the most serious obstacle to progress. The stifling effect that this has had on creativity is "detrimental to creating a knowledge society; people dare not think out-of-the-box", says Farouk El-Baz, an Egyptian-born geologist at Boston University in Massachusetts.

One result, says Khalil, is that the educational culture in Egypt has become based on rote learning of existing knowledge and dogma, and doesn't allow for debate or creative thinking. "The whole concept of creativity and entrepreneurship is alien to the existing system," he says.

"Building science is not just a question of money and projects, it is also about a whole climate of research, of freedom of enquiry, freedom of expression, education, the ability to question," adds Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria. That the country's youth is now standing up for these values gives reason for hope, he says.

Despite the repression and stagnation in Egypt, Serageldin says, profound changes have been brewing for years. Empowered by discussions using the Internet, the young have come to find freedom of expression, and other rights, "so natural that it's like breathing — they can't accept anything else", he says.

"What Egypt most needs now to develop itself is to unleash the energy of its youth and its population," adds El-Baz. "This regime must leave, and let a younger generation take power." 

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