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Mideast Relations 101
An Upbeat Indicator in the Rising Demand at the Region’s American Universities We all know that the United States has never been more unpopular in the Middle East. That, anyway, is what polls tell us -- one out recently from the Brookings Institution reported that for the first time, the U.S. president is more disliked among Arabs than
Tuesday, April 17,2007 00:00
by Jackson Diehl, The Washington Post

An Upbeat Indicator in the Rising Demand at the Region’s American Universities


We all know that the United States has never been more unpopular in the Middle East. That, anyway, is what polls tell us -- one out recently from the Brookings Institution reported that for the first time, the U.S. president is more disliked among Arabs than the prime minister of Israel.

So what explains why more Arab students than ever are trying to get into one of the four accredited American universities based in the region -- not to mention the branches of U.S. campuses that are sprouting like mushrooms? Simple, says David Arnold, president of the American University in Cairo, which received 2,500 applications for the 1,000 places in its incoming class, 20 percent more than last year. "There is a large and growing demand for the gold standard in higher education, which is an American education."

"Most people don’t hate us," adds Winfred L. Thompson, chancellor of the American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. "They admire American institutions. They admire American education. They admire the openness of our society."

Arnold, Thompson and the presidents of the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University were in Washington last month to push this counterpoint to conventional wisdom and to draw attention to the contribution their institutions are making to U.S. interests in the region. They were careful not to identify themselves with the Bush administration -- in fact, their relations with the State Department are curiously lukewarm.

Still, the universities offer encouraging evidence of why a mission to spread liberal and democratic values in the Middle East is not quixotic. To a large and growing extent, U.S.-chartered or accredited universities are training the elite of countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, the Persian Gulf states and, soon, Iraq. They are teaching women equally with men; opening programs in Western-style journalism; offering cutting-edge courses in capitalism, science and politics; and providing a refuge for free intellectual and political debate.

Together, the four American universities have more than 20,000 students, as well as more than 100,000 alumni. Twenty to 40 percent of their faculty members, as well as their presidents, are American. The rest include some of the most liberal intellectuals in the Arab world, including pro-democracy dissidents such as Egypt’s Saad Eddin Ibrahim -- who taught President Hosni Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, at the American University in Cairo but was later imprisoned for challenging Mubarak’s autocracy.

That’s not to say they are indistinguishable from American campuses. At AU-Sharjah, which was founded and funded by the emirate’s ruler 10 years ago, the children of some Persian Gulf potentates arrive in chauffeured limousines and are accompanied by aides who carry their laptops. "In the classroom they are treated no differently from other students," says Thompson. There are a large number of Iranians among the student body of 4,100, and while most are ex-pats, more than 100 come from Iran itself.

At the American University of Beirut, which was founded in 1866 and is revered in Lebanon as a national institution, there are hundreds of student supporters of Hezbollah -- yes, the same movement designated a terrorist organization by the State Department. Student elections last November led to a tense standoff on campus between Hezbollah and parties of the pro-Western Lebanese government -- mirroring the larger impasse in the country. Two Hezbollah supporters were elected as student representatives.

That’s part of what makes State nervous. There’s been debate in the agency about the value of the American universities, with some pointing to the activity on their campuses by Hezbollah and other extreme anti-Western groups. The four university presidents met briefly with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during their Washington tour but not with Karen Hughes, Rice’s point person for American "public diplomacy" in the Middle East.

"We haven’t gotten clear signals" from the administration, said AUB President John Waterbury. "When we talk to them we always get encouraging words." On the other hand, funding is relatively sparse: a few million dollars annually for scholarships, though the U.S. Agency for International Development supplied a quarter of the money for a new $400 million campus in Cairo. This year so far there is no funding budgeted for the American University of Beirut, though discussions are underway.

It’s fair to ask whether the Iranians and the adherents to Hezbollah at the universities are being infused with liberal values -- or allowed to counter them. When I have visited the Beirut and Cairo campuses and met with students, it’s looked much more like the former. "We see ourselves preparing a future leadership that can enter into constructive dialogue with the United States and the West," says Waterbury. Let’s hope those students grow up quickly.


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