June 28 2011
PASADENA – Caltech professor and Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail has spent the last several months shuttling between his home in San Marino and his home country.
Since jumping in to help guide a transitional government during Egypt’s momentous revolution early this year, he has shifted focus toward resurrecting a dream at least 12 years in the making – a science and technology institute he hopes will move the country in line with the global marketplace.
A Cairene Caltech.
“I’m trying to play here the role of this man behind you, Robert Milikan,” Zewail said, nodding toward a portrait of the experimental physicist, fellow Nobel laureate and Caltech arch angel.
The painting looms near Zewail’s table in the main room of Caltech’s Atheneum, the members-only club where geniuses and their ghosts meet over working lunches, lobster night and the famed “Berries Athenaeum.”
“But it takes more than Milikan. You need somebody who knows about fundraising, administrative structures,” Zewail said.
Dubbed the “Zewail City of Science and Technology,” the institute has a board of trustees already studded with six Nobel prize winners and Caltech president Jean Lou Chameau.
As chair, Zewail intends to lightly steer things from his base at Caltech, perhaps traveling to Egypt for two-week trips a few times a year.
Through a fund established for the $2 billion project, he’s raised about $100 million from private sources, and is hopeful
the government will chip in about as much annually.
Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the junta that took over when the Mubarak regime crumbled, has already gifted Zewail a downtown Cairo villa and the 300 acres of prime desert land where the city will rise – altogether worth about $1.6 billion, he said.
Even with the country’s political future in flux, Zewail seems assured by backing from the Egyptian cabinet and from the popular Muslim Brotherhood party – two forces that appear destined to shoulder power in a post-electoral Egypt.
But Laurie Brand, professor and director at the University of Southern California’s School of International Relations, points out that the ambitious project emerges at a time when a range of problems can undermine the historic window of opportunity.
The most immediate danger is an economic downturn, primarily caused by a drop in tourism, one of the country’s three primary sources of hard currency, Brand said.
“A city like this sounds wonderful … whether it actually responds to Egyptians’ most immediate needs is the real question.”
There is the country’s “appalling” literacy rate – 66.6 percent in 2008, according to UNICEF, and its “dreadful” public education system, Brand said.
The country’s deterioration under Mubarak’s 30-year rule troubles Zewail, who considers the education he received there in the 1960s “excellent.”
“Egypt was the leader of the Arab world, the center of activity as far as science, culture, theatre, books – you name it,” he said.
Now, new graduates can’t compete at the international level; universities, research and development remain underfunded.
“If you look at the economy of any country today, including the U.S., you cannot do it without investment in science and technology … If you look at American leadership in the world – it’s because of science and technology,” Zewail said.
Brand points out that there is still the question of who would attend a school like Zewail’s, and what channels would they go through to get there. Perhaps more crucially, where would they go after they graduate?
Egypt has a robust history of brain drain – and reservoirs of educated people stifled by unemployment, grossly underpaying positions, or an impossible job market run on “wasta” – Egyptian slang for connections.
The government would have to help create more private and public sector research opportunities – and the cabinet’s first post-Revolution budget takes a tiny step in that direction.
But Zewail says his institute can help by incubating new projects with “the young and brilliant” and reinvesting revenues.
He admits he’s worried about politics – and the threat of a new bureaucracy arising in place of the old one.
Brand notes that the generations currently in charge of the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are not particularly keen on democratic reform – and the loosely organized youth movement has been the one holding the former’s feet to the fire.
Zewail knows that what he considers beautiful about the revolution – the fact that it was headless – is a problem for these various youth movements that lack the political savvy or mobilizing power of more established groups.
At the same time, there are a number of outside forces that have no interest in seeing a democratic, open Egypt emerge, Brand said.
The result is that “you could easily construct a city like this and still have it be caught in the same kind of semi-authoritarian paradigm… where there are real limits on serious research and development.”
For now, Zewail says he is trying to focus on the immediate task of building a whole new city. And after more than a decade of frustrated efforts to get the project off the ground, the dramatic shift must be rewarding.
When Zewail won the Nobel for chemistry 12 years ago, he used the opportunity to pry open a window.
“When Mubarak called me here in San Marino, I told him … there is something very important that I want to talk to you about – namely that Egypt’s science (sector) is in a difficult situation and I would like to propose a way of getting out of it,” he said.
Zewail met privately with Mubarak, who put his prime minister on the job. But the next twelve years were difficult, Zewail said; a maze of red tape.
“Sometimes I also had the feeling that I might be too popular politically – that maybe they were threatened by this, because the masses in the country were very supportive of me.”
When the revolution finally came, he was surprised – but only by its character.
“I think clearly I saw it coming, but I never saw it coming this way,” he said. “I thought there might be a revolution from the poor…I thought maybe a military involvement. I thought that it would be ugly.”
The last thought is the one that kept him up at night. History is hung with examples of violent regime change, and Egypt’s disaffected and oppressed citizens had the cards stacked against them.
“But I’m so pleased… that you have millions in the streets and transforming the country and in a civilized way. So as an Egyptian of course I am very proud… And that’s why I want the Egyptians to capitalize on this victory.”
And while he had told supporters that he’d think about it – perhaps he allowed himself to be flattered by the idea – Zewail is clear that he will not pursue a political position in whatever government emerges.
“I think I can serve both worlds perfectly if I’m in my role” – which he protects by shying away from direct political endorsements.
Wasting no time, he wants to enroll undergraduates next fall, well before construction is complete, to line them up for the graduate school.
Classes will be small and the focus narrowed to what Egypt can do best – things like solar and wind energy, disease research specific to the continent, and eventually other area like nanosciences and imaging.
“I think Egypt can play a central role in unique R and D … We may not invent anything in the next five years, but at least to be on par with what’s happening in the world and offer new advances.”
Changes in the business and economic climates will come, he argues. “But we want to be the catalyst – we want to catalyze this process.”
Perhaps, Brand said, what Egypt really needs is not just Ahmed Zewail – but fifty more like him behind similar projects, to get some real traction.
“Maybe his example can serve to mobilize other Egyptians from the diaspora to get involved back home. If it served as a catalyst for that, it might actually be an even greater service.”
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