Oh Protests and Presidents

by David McKay Wilson

When the Egyptian revolution broke out in Tahrir Square on January 25, Lisa Anderson ’72 was just three weeks into her tenure as president of the American University in Cairo.

Two days later, thousands of Egyptians poured into the square, calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. AUC’s downtown campus borders the public plaza in Cairo, and Anderson quickly gathered top administrators to make contingency plans for the weekend. If the Internet goes down, she told them, they should gather at her home in suburban Maadi.

That night, government forces attacked the throng, leaving dozens dead. Then the Web went down across the nation.

“Everybody showed up the next afternoon at my house,” she recalls. “My dining room became AUC’s crisis management center.”

It was a tumultuous time for the university. Anderson’s inauguration gala was canceled and classes were suspended. The violence invaded AUC’s campus when unauthorized snipers ascended to the roofs of its buildings and shot down at demonstrators in Tahrir Square. (Anderson alerted authorities about the incident and has cooperated in the ensuing investigation.)

The stucco walls of the campus, meanwhile, became a canvas for graffiti—a flowering of free speech in a nation ruled for 30 years by the autocratic Mubarak regime. “Free Egypt!” declared a typical posting.

Anderson has allowed the graffiti to stay. “It’s a piece of art,” she says.

Anderson understands better than many Americans the causes that brought the revolution to life. As a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence, she became captivated by Egyptian history in Adda Bozeman’s course on politics and culture in world affairs, where she wrote an 80-page conference paper on the subject. That course set her life’s trajectory toward the Middle East, specifically North Africa. Anderson was among a handful of Western social scientists in Libya during Muammar Gaddafi’s reign, researching her doctoral dissertation about the social transformation of Tunisia and Libya between 1830 and 1980.

She eventually taught government and social studies at Harvard, earned her doctorate in political science, and became dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Then she moved to Egypt, and served as provost of AUC for three years before her appointment as president.

Now that Egypt’s tumult has subsided, Anderson says she’s particularly worried about the transition in Libya. “In Egypt, I think the transition to democracy is going to work, though there will be mistakes,” she says. “In Libya, however, it’s more of a hope than having real confidence.”

She points out that Gaddafi’s lack of investment in higher education left an entire generation without training in the modern disciplines of public administration and human resources—crucial skills for successful governmental leadership.

“The Libyans are bright and well-intentioned, but they all could use six-week modules in financial management,” she says.

AUC, of course, is ready to help. Anderson has established the region’s first master’s program in public policy, and firmly believes that higher education can play an important role in the changing Arab world.