A President Visits SIPA (Again)

21 Mar

Lisa Anderson, President of the American University of Cairo (and a former Dean of SIPA)

A beloved former SIPA Dean, who I have already heard much about during my first few months at SIPA, came back to the school this evening as the President of the American University in Cairo (AUC). She gave a short lecture titled “The Arab Uprisings: A View from the University on Tahrir Square.”

Lisa Anderson is a petite woman with a strong voice and large presence. She is clearly an academic celebrity, judging from the excited turnout (including several Professors and the current SIPA Dean, John Coatsworth).  Anderson began by warning that her lecture would be “political-science-y.” That is really how she began: a somewhat dry look at what makes up an undemocratic regime. Her point, really, was that it’s important to look for patterns that can tells us something about the regimes’ breakdown. As she wound down her 35-minute prepared talk, she pointed out:

“Note that Ben Ali in Tunisia was exiled from the country. Mubarak was allowed to stay home. He is in internal exile at his palace in Sharm El Sheikh. Gaddafi is most likely going to die… And that tells you something about the different regimes, revolutions and reconstruction.”

When students were invited to ask questions, the discussion became much more lively. What is happening in Libya was on everyone’s minds. Anderson’s concern regarding Libya is that the “issue is not going to be democracy building [as in Tunisia and Egypt] but state building. Is the very shape of the country going to change?” She is clearly worried that the “discussion” about changes will happen through conflict.

“Gaddafi did spend 40 years disorganizing people. That was by design- a constant revolution. Someone needs to organize people. Maybe that can be the Libyan people, but given how angry they are at each other… Let us see if we can organize conversations to manage deep anger and resentment in the reconstruction,” she said.

A couple of student questions drew Anderson back to Egypt. She talked about her own experience managing a university during the unexpected internet blackout and the fighting in Tahrir. She also gave examples of changes that are happening already in AUC, the biggest being changes in the rules around freedom of expression. While it was restricted previously (no discussion of religion or politics), now there is a freedom on campus much like that in American universities. To Anderson, this is an exciting moment.

“If we do this right. If Egypt does it right. If AUC does it right… It’s a wonderful opportunity. This is how good ideas happen.”

One of the final questions was by a second-year SIPA student who began to say: “President Anderson, I remember meeting you in AUC one week before the revolution happened, and you were categorial that Mubarak wouldn’t fall– ” to which Anderson quickly cut in, “That it couldn’t happen.” The room laughed, and she continued, “My only defense of that is no one thought it would happen, not even the Egyptians and Tunisians.”

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