When Ahmed Zewail first heard of the popular revolt against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011, he immediately left for Cairo. “It was a very emotional time. I have family in Egypt, and I owe the country my early education,” says Zewail, who is a professor of chemistry at Caltech. “I knew I had to take action.”
Zewail was in a unique position to help: He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999 for his groundbreaking work using lasers to observe chemical reactions, becoming Egypt’s first and only Nobel laureate in science. He also became a national celebrity and a sympathetic ear for the growing frustrations over Egypt’s failing educational system. Under Mubarak, scientists were underpaid; public universities were run by party favorites and crammed with more than 1,000 students per class.
And so, with the hope of using his popularity to help negotiate a peaceful transition to a new regime and revitalize science education in Egypt, Zewail met last winter with Mubarak’s vice president, Omar Suleiman, as well as with the youth organizers who gathered in Tahrir Square.
DISCOVER recently spoke with Zewail about the revolution and the future of science and technology in his home country.
What was the state of science in Egypt before Mubarak?
The recent decline in science education is ironic, because Egypt introduced science to civilization. It’s where the first calendar was invented using the solar system more than 6,000 years ago. The word chemistry came from ancient Egypt. It’s from the word Khem, indicating the change of soil colors when the Nile flooded. And there’s the engineering of the pyramids. During the Coptic era [300 b.c. to a.d. 900], Alexandria was like the Caltech or mit of the world. Euclid and Archimedes were there. The circumference of the Earth was measured for the first time in Alexandria. Even as late as 200 years ago, Egypt was leading the Middle East in scientific and cultural advances. Only over the last several decades did it decline, due to political reasons.
Why the marked deterioration under Mubarak’s regime?
Fifty years ago South Korea’s gross domestic product was behind Egypt’s, but now South Korea is far ahead. There is no doubt it is because Egypt spent 0.2 percent of its gdp on science and technology when it should have spent 2 percent [South Korea spent 3.2 percent of its gdp on science and technology in 2007]. Scientists were undervalued. They got salaries of $500 a month and a comparable research budget. Over 200,000 people were enrolled in Cairo University, overcrowding classrooms. There was no clear merit system to help outstanding scientists. Also, during Mubarak’s regime security forces were very influential. Politics overruled academic performance and outcome. You can’t run a university if hiring a dean has to pass through security. That’s outrageous. Universities should be run by academics.
What’s the prevailing attitude about science in Egypt?
When I gave a lecture about scientific and public issues at the Alexandria library, more than 6,000 young people attended. And when I gave a national address in Cairo called “Egypt Can” about Egypt’s glorious past in science and technology, more than 30 million people watched on television. You would not believe this, but somebody who achieves in science is even more appreciated than a football player in the United States. It’s obvious that people are thirsty for knowledge.