Cairo University Is Inaugurated

After years of discussion, Cairo University was funded through government and private donations and inaugurated in 1908. Created under the protection of Prince Aḥmed Fu՚ād, the university’s first decades were marked by instability resulting from its relations with nascent Egyptian nationalism and forces for government control of higher education.

Summary of Event

Education had been seen as an essential component of Egypt’s modernization as early as the seventeenth century governorship of MuḥammadՙAlī Pasha. It was not, however, until the later years of the British occupation of Egypt (which technically ended with Egypt’s formal independence in 1922) that various factions within Egyptian society began to discuss the need for founding an Egyptian university. Under the leadership of the first earl of Cromer, the consul general, the British had largely ignored the country’s educational needs, either out of benign neglect or because of Lord Cromer’s belief that an educated populace would be more difficult to control. Still, Egyptian nationalists of differing political stripes and various agendas were united by their belief in the need for such an institution. Dominance in the region’s politics constantly shifted within a triangle of forces: British colonials, Egyptian nationalists, and the remnants of the descendants of MuḥammadՙAlī Pasha, who had been the Ottoman ruler in the area. The complexity of the situation and British disinterest in educating Egyptians brought the efforts to nil. Cairo University, founding
Egyptian University
Fu{hamza}{amacr}d University[Fuad University]
University of Cairo
Education;Cairo University
[kw]Cairo University Is Inaugurated (Dec. 21, 1908)
[kw]University Is Inaugurated, Cairo (Dec. 21, 1908)
Cairo University, founding
Egyptian University
Fu{hamza}{amacr}d University[Fuad University]
University of Cairo
Education;Cairo University
[g]Africa;Dec. 21, 1908: Cairo University Is Inaugurated[02260]
[g]Egypt;Dec. 21, 1908: Cairo University Is Inaugurated[02260]
[c]Education;Dec. 21, 1908: Cairo University Is Inaugurated[02260]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 21, 1908: Cairo University Is Inaugurated[02260]
Fu{hamza}{amacr}d I
Zaghl{umacr}l, Sa{ayn}d
Cromer, first earl of (Evelyn Baring)
{ayn}Abb{amacr}s II
Marshall, J. E.
Mu{hsubdot}ammad {ayn}Al{imacr} Pasha

By 1900 Egypt had several higher-level technical schools, and it also had a premier institution of higher learning, Al-Azhar. Al-Azhar was, however, a religious school whose aims and methods in 1900 were largely the same as they had been in 1300. It trained religious and Qur՚ānic scholars to tend to Muslims’ spiritual needs. What Egypt lacked was a university built on the Western model: an institution of free inquiry into a range of secular, religious, technical, and cultural subjects. In 1906, a university committee was created to remedy this problem. It was led by Saՙd Zaghlūl, a moderate and pro-Western nationalist who went on to become minister of education and a major voice for educational reform throughout the first quarter of the century. While this group supported the creation of a university, neither the colonial powers nor the palace was supportive, and these political realities slowed fund-raising efforts.

Before long, however, J. E. Marshall, a British judge in Egypt, had added his voice to those calling for improved higher education in the nation, and his ideas eventually found some support. The colonial power recognized the university committee and added three government representatives, including Marshall. At this point, the palace’s Ottoman governor also took up the cause, although this probably had more to do with an interest in blocking efforts by Ottoman rivals than an interest in advancing education. In October of 1907, the khedive (the Egyptian ruler who acted on behalf of the sultan of Turkey), ՙAbbās II, offered five thousand Egyptian pounds as a charitable bequest to support the founding of a university. He appointed his cousin, Aḥmed Fu՚ād, as chair of the university committee.

Fu՚ād was an ambitious and astute politician. He used the early and intermittent support for the university to enhance his power and reputation in Egyptian and international politics. He reshaped the committee, eliminating most of its nationalist supporters, and he positioned himself as both a government benefactor who encouraged large donations and as a defender of university autonomy. Whatever his personal ambitions, he actively promoted the project: He toured Europe in search of donations, and on December 21, 1908, he held a lavish inauguration ceremony. Fu՚ād served as university president until 1913. In 1917, he assumed the sultan’s powers, and in 1922 he was named king of Egypt.

At the time of the inauguration, however, the university occupied rented quarters in the Palazzo Giancalis (later to become the administration building of the American University in Cairo). It employed five faculty and offered fewer than ten courses. It did not bring earlier schools of practical higher education under its aegis; instead, it was limited to the humanities. Many early nationalists had regarded the humanities, particularly history and literature, as critical studies for the development of a national Egyptian identity. Unlike the earlier technical schools, it established a curriculum that was designed to be nonutilitarian—that is, not leading directly to government employment. The university did, however, employ a number of significant European scholars of Islam, and it therefore became a center of early twentieth century orientalist thought. After years of neglect and decline, King Fu՚ād I reorganized the university and renamed it the Egyptian University in 1925. Upon Fu՚ād’s death in 1936, the university was named for him, but this name was changed to the University of Cairo after Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in 1952.

Cairo University was the product of Egyptian nationalism, and its inauguration encouraged further nationalist sentiment. However, under Fu՚ād’s control, the university did not immediately become a powerful institution. Its humanities faculty and student body were politically quiescent until after World War I, when political rivalry between Saՙd Zaghlūl (now the minister of education and leader of a parliamentary nationalist party) and Fu՚ād energized both students and faculty. In the interwar period, the faculty and students were politically active, and debates about issues such as who should hold the position of dean became fraught with larger political meaning.

As in other countries, in Egypt education became a critical ingredient in the expansion of women’s rights. Opportunities for primary and secondary education had been nonexistent, but slowly Egyptian women were admitted to foreign schools and then, in 1873, to state schools. A vocational school for women was opened in 1910, and the Cairo University broke new ground when it opened a Women’s Section in 1911 and admitted women to lectures. Some of the lecturers, however, advocated increases in women’s rights that clashed with prevailing social values, and demonstrations closed the section in 1913. However, women were again admitted in small numbers in the 1920’s, and the first degrees were awarded to women of Fu՚ād University in 1933.


Education in the Middle East became a central component of most of the debates that shaped the region and Muslim-Western relations. Discussions of education immediately evoked questions of traditionalism versus modernizatiom, religion versus secularism, and nationalism versus Westernization. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, investments in higher education in Egypt were always associated with a desire to modernize the country and to make it competitive with American and European nations. In a period in which foreign schools dominated in Islamic lands, the University at Cairo became a model of the national university, and it gradually developed one of the largest student enrollments of any university. Many important world leaders—including former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and former secretary-general of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali—were students at Cairo University. Cairo University, founding
Egyptian University
Fu{hamza}{amacr}d University[Fuad University]
University of Cairo
Education;Cairo University

Further Reading

  • Cochran, Judith. Education in Egypt. London: Croom-Helm, 1986. A study of the history and state of modern education at the primary, secondary, and college levels with recommendations for foreign investment.
  • Erlich, Haggai. Students and University in Twentieth Century Egyptian Politics. London: Frank Cass, 1989. A detailed study of the personalities and parties involved in Egyptian politics. Complex investigation of motivations and rivalries and of students’ role in promoting government stability and instability.
  • Goldschmidt, Arthur, Jr. Biographical Dictionary of Egypt. Cairo, Egypt: American University of Cairo Press, 2000. Profiles the major actors involved in early twentieth century Egyptian politics.
  • Gorman, Anthony. Historians, State, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Egypt: Contesting the Nation. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. A good discussion of Egyptian politics and of the relationship between Egypt and Great Britain.
  • Reid, Donald M. Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A thorough if laudatory history of the university that uses many archival documents. An assessment of its contributions to Egyptian culture and politics.
  • Szyliowicz, Joseph S. Education and Modernization in the Middle East. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973. An assessment of education in three Middle Eastern countries—Egypt, Turkey, and Iran—and its role in economic and social development. Informative, but somewhat dated.

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