Students roam Cairo University campus. (Credit: Mina Nader)

Egyptian Educators Protest over Wage Stagnation, Lack of Benefits

Salaries have not kept up with inflation and cost of living increases

[CAIRO] As over two million students returned to campus for the start of a new school year, more than 60,000 professors and teaching staff at Egypt’s 24 public universities joined a campaign to protest wage stagnation and unfulfilled funding promises by the government.

Although the disgruntled academics have positioned their protest as a defense of the public education system, authorities detained three of their leaders and pro-government publications have attacked the professors as advancing the interests of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

“It’s no wonder that academics are leaving the country when the salary of the Egyptian university professors in the Gulf states is never less than 60,000 Egyptian pounds (LE) per month [$3,600],” said Mohamed Ahmed, a Cairo academic who is a member of the Egypt’s Scholars are Angry campaign.

By contrast, Egyptian university teachers are now taking home between LE3,000 and LE10,000 a month.

As well as seeking increased pay, the campaign calls for better health insurance as well as pensions following retirement amounting to at least 80 percent of a yearly salary.

Members of Egypt’s Scholars are Angry Facebook group say they have ruled out a general strike but need the government to move quickly to align salaries with an increased cost of living driven by the elimination of food and fuel subsidies and high inflation caused largely by the 2016 devaluation of the Egyptian pound.

To prove their ultimate loyalty to the El Sisi Administration, professors have generally refused to speak to international news outlets.

Yet their effort is a clear sign that despite economic reforms introduced by Cairo – including elevated foreign currency reserves, coupled with a dip in the unemployment rate – Egypt’s educated middle class is becoming impatient with the lack of improvement in their living conditions.

“The situation with faculty salaries at public universities is difficult,” a senior administrator at the American University in Cairo told The Media Line on condition of anonymity.

“The Treasury is telling the Education Ministry that they don’t anticipate being able to do much about it until June 2020 when the next fiscal year begins,” the official explained.

Academics are frustrated because a 2012 push to restructure their salaries was not implemented due to instability during the short tenure of former president Mohamed Morsi.

Attempts at Cairo University to supplement pay for faculty who successfully publish their research in international journals are little more than a “sedative”, said Mahmoud Al-Kurdi, a professor of sociology. “Radical change is needed, which means amending the 1972 law which currently regulates universities.”

That Sadat-era law set basic salary for university presidents at LE2500, for deans at LE1800, and for assistant professors at LE1440. Adjustments such as the publishing stipends offered at Cairo University have failed to keep pace with forty years of inflation and cost of living increases.

“We aim to press our demands peacefully but university staff has the right to lead a decent life,” political sociology professor Ahmed Zayed, a former Cairo University dean, told the daily Al-Ahram. “What I am talking about is a reasonable existence, not a luxurious one. We need fair salaries to cope with soaring prices.”

Zealous backers of the President Abdel el-Fattah el-Sisi have charged the protesting professors with Muslim Brotherhood affiliation – essentially labeling the academics as terrorists.

“The university professors participating in this group on Facebook may think they are faithful to their principles and their work, but they allowed the Brotherhood to ride them and turned their campaign into an effort to attack the state,” said Mohamed El-Baz, editor of the Al-Dustour newspaper, who justified police questioning of some protesting academics.

As of last week, authorities had released two of the detained academics, Abdel-Azim El-Gammal, a professor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Suez Canal University in Ismailia, and Abdel Aziz Hassan, a member of the board of directors of faculty at Benha University, which located about 30 miles from the capital.

Both were unharmed after several hours of questioning by officers in the Interior Ministry’s Homeland Security Agency.

But Tarek Al-Sheikh, assistant professor in the law department at Zagazig University, is still serving a 15-day detention on accusations of possessing leaflets aimed at overthrowing the regime.

Al-Sheikh’s colleagues insist that the materials were simply part and parcel of the campaign for increased state support for higher education.

Many believe he is being singled out for his leadership role as a member of a five-member panel appointed last year by the Supreme Council of Universities to make recommendations on instructors’ pay.

Former Cairo University president and law professor Gaber Nassar took to Facebook to defend the academics’ movement.

“Ignoring the anger and hopes of the university faculty and scientists of Egypt about their miserable situation is unhealthy,” wrote Nassar. “It is not in the interest of anyone to question their patriotism. I call on authorities to understand the anger and meet [the professors’] demands.”

Some faculty believe the campaign needs to aim beyond the immediate demands and work toward achieving a complete overhaul of the higher education system in Egypt.

“The real problem is greater than the low wages of faculty members, that’s just one hint of the deterioration of the university education system in general,” said Hala Foda, an assistant professor at the french language faculty at Cairo’s Ain Shams University.

“The current system has largely eliminated free education and did not improve the service provided by Egyptian universities to students due to the limited human and logistic resources,” Foda told The Media Line.

“Under the constitution, the budget that the state is supposed to spend on education is 2 percent and this is not being applied nor is the budget for scientific research. The independence of universities and academic freedoms have faded from Egyptian universities and both must be claimed and restored.”

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