Cablegate: Controversy Over Al-Azhar English Language Research Center
RR RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHKUK RUEHROV
DE RUEHEG #3558/01 3651400
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 311400Z DEC 07
FM AMEMBASSY CAIRO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 7813
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 CAIRO 003558
STATE FOR NEA/PPD, ECA, IIP, R/PPR Gretchen Welch, ECA/A/L John
TAGS: PREL PGOV KPAO KIRF KDEM SCUL SOCI EG
SUBJECT: CONTROVERSY OVER AL-AZHAR ENGLISH LANGUAGE RESEARCH CENTER
PLAYS OUT IN MEDIA
Sensitive but unclassified. Please protect accordingly.
1. (SBU) Summary: The recent opening of the English Language
Research Center (ELRC) at the premier Islamic studies university in
the Middle East (Al-Azhar University in Cairo) was a key milestone
in U.S. public diplomacy efforts in Egypt. There have been ten
articles on the new center, three of them wholly negative. While
media coverage of the ELRC inauguration itself on November 19 was
straightforward, some professors and students have recently aired
their grievances in the media. Those who oppose the ELRC are openly
skeptical of the center's purpose and see it as an American Trojan
horse, which will be used to spread American culture and values at
the expense of the university's Islamic tradition. Al-Azhar
administrators have so far defended the ELRC in the press, providing
much needed balance in the overall media coverage and indicating
their desire to make the center a success. End summary.
OPENING GOES OFF WITHOUT A HITCH
2. (U) On November 19, 2007 the Ambassador inaugurated the new ELRC
at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The ELRC is a collaborative effort
between the Embassy and Al-Azhar to improve the English language
skills of lecturers in Al-Azhar University's Islamic and Arabic
Studies faculties. The Center's faculty includes seven Egyptian
professors and two American English Language Fellows (ELFs). While
the center is administered by Al-Azhar, costs are shared equally by
the University and the Embassy, using funds from R and ECA.
3. (U) The Ambassador's speech inaugurating the center was
well-received and coverage was straightforward in the pro-government
dailies of Al Ahram, Al Gomhouriya and Rose al Youssef. Only the
independent daily Nahdet Masr hinted that the center could raise "a
major controversy in the near future."
ENTER THE CRITICS
4. (U) During the past month, sporadic articles in the press have
revealed an undercurrent of discontent about the ELRC among some in
Egyptian academic circles. On November 28, in the sensationalist
daily Al-Dostur, the former President of Al-Azhar University, Dr.
Abdel-Fattah Al-Sheikh, asked rhetorically "what does it mean to
have an American center where Americans are teaching and running it?
What a catastrophe!" A few days later in an article in Al Osboa
dated December 1, the ELRC conspiracy theory was spelled out in more
detail: "The aim is clear to all: such a center is the 'hidden eye'
for those who write reports from the Embassy to the U.S.
administration, and are told to 'Americanize' a generation of
Al-Azhar scholars with brainwashing."
5. (U) The December 20-26 edition of the English language Al Ahram
weekly carried a more balanced article entitled "American English,"
which cited several ELRC critics. One anonymous Al-Azhar professor
was quoted: "we view this American centre as a gradual cultural
occupation which will eventually lead to American hegemony over
Al-Azhar curricula." Ahmed Thabet, professor of political science
at Cairo University, declared that "one can easily see that the ELRC
aspires to more than teaching the English language. The Egyptian
government's hesitation to modernize Al-Azhar's curricula and its
entrenched ways of thinking and structural body paved the way for
the American Embassy to violate the sacredness of Al-Azhar
University." A criticism of a different sort appeared in Rose Al
Youssef on December 16. "Al-Azhar University is witnessing
dissatisfaction among the teachers who are currently receiving
training at the U.S. Embassy language lab. Some of them... confirmed
that the times of the training impede them from teaching, which
deprives them of many financial benefits." In fact, this is not
true as Al-Azhar administrators have guaranteed that those
participating in the English language training will receive the same
financial benefits as before.
AL-AZHAR UNIVERSITY WEIGHS IN
6. (U) Despite the complaints, Al-Azhar university administrators
have defended the ELRC in the press. In the evening daily Al Messa
on December 14, AL-Azhar University Vice President Dr. Ezz Eddin El
Sawy "confirmed that the talk about implementing an American plot to
penetrate Al-Azhar and its university... is a lie and ready-made
accusation by those who seek to spread chaos. The mission of the
Center is to teach English to non-speakers from the teaching corps
and students, so they can have dialogue with the West." In the same
Al Ahram weekly article "American English," Al-Azhar spokesman Omar
El-Deeb defends the ELRC by stating that "we made an English
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assessment of the lecturers... The result was not satisfactory at
all. The Al-Azhar administration believes that it is essential that
Islamic lecturers and professors be in full command of the English
language for many reasons, including being able to prepare their
thesis if they study abroad."
7. (SBU). To date overall media coverage of the Al-Azhar ELRC has
generated approximately ten articles written on the topic. Three
have been wholly negative. Given the climate of suspicion against
the United States, especially regarding Islam, Al-Azhar's firm stand
underlines their desire for expanded academic linkages. This week
their President signed a student exchange agreement with Claremont
College, and he is eager for scholarships enabling dozens of
Al-Azhar graduate students to earn higher degrees in the US. Al
Azhar's actions have been a welcome sign and a powerful shield
against domestic Egyptian criticism.