Academics in Egypt have been left scratching their heads after a decision by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to grant civilian scientific degrees to students of military colleges.
The July announcement, largely overlooked by local media, has caused anger inside academic circles, as some say it trespasses on the sanctity of academia.
“This decision violates the constitution,” Mustafa Kamel al-Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University, told Middle East Eye.
“Constitutionally speaking, the minister of defence does not have the right to offer civilian college degrees.”
Under the new measure, the minister of defence will be able to grant civilian degrees to graduates of different military colleges.
For example, military and naval college students will have the right to obtain a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science, while those of the air force academy will be able to obtain a degree in business administration and airport management.
Under Sisi’s rule, the government has been offering special perks to the men in uniform, ranging from flats and cars at reduced prices, to medical treatment at special hospitals, to beaches that are no-go areas for the general public.
But the new decision risks undermining university degrees, some academics fear.
University admission in Egypt is conditioned on scoring high in the last year of secondary school, with departments such as medicine, engineering, economics and political science often reserved for students with the highest marks.
Admission into army-affiliated colleges, however, does not require high secondary school scores, meaning that pupils with a final year mark of 50 percent or 60 per cent can join these colleges, provided that they are physically and psychologically fit.
The same applies to the police academy, which qualifies secondary school graduates to become police officers.
Growing army influence
The move has also left some unanswered questions about who will have the final say on granting these degrees.
Normally, the Supreme Universities’ Council, a body affiliated with the Ministry of Higher Education, approves the scientific degrees offered to the graduates of civilian universities.
The council also regulates the work of the nation’s universities and higher education institutes.
Sisi’s latest decision does not specify whether the defence ministry will coordinate offering civilian degrees to military college students with the council.
This is why some academics accuse the president of marginalising the council, by usurping one of its jobs and giving it to the minister of defence.
“The decision overlooks the Supreme Universities’ Council,” Sayed said. “I do not think the council had been consulted about such a decision.”
Under the new mechanism, which will be enforced at the start of the next academic year in September, the minister of defence is tasked with drawing up the curricula, teaching mechanism, and examination systems.
The minister of defence is also tasked with outlining the rules that will regulate the process of offering these degrees.
Some observers believe the decision is part of a wider push to increase the army’s influence in state institutions.
“This is quite manifested in such a decision,” a political analyst told MEE on condition of anonymity.
After taking power in a military coup that ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, Sisi has sought to appease the public by embarking on grand development projects and social welfare programmes.
At the same time, the general-turned-president has enabled the military to expand its role in almost every aspect of the state.
Officers are knee-deep in running various sectors of the economy, such as road infrastructure development, construction projects, food production, and management of media institutions, including state-run newspapers and TV channels.
Despite warnings against Sisi’s latest move by some, others can see its merit.
To some Egyptians, the army is viewed as a guardian of social and economic welfare, in addition to its defence duties.
During the 2011 public bus drivers’ strike, the army sent in troops to get behind the wheels and replace public drivers.
It was again the army that provided basic commodities at reduced costs in 2016 after a currency crisis sent prices soaring.
With conscription in the army being obligatory for all males once they turn 20, the military already plays a central part in many Egyptians’ lives.
So the decision to grant military graduates civilian degrees should not be viewed with the sceptical lens of militarising society, said Tarek Fahmi, another political science professor at Cairo University.
Rather, it should be seen as an important step to give army officers more experience.
“Regional and international conditions make it necessary for army officers to study political and strategic sciences,” Fahmi told MEE. “The same thing is being done in European military academies.”
Fahmi’s assessment is echoed by Nasr Salem, a retired army general.
“This is not done so that army officers take up civilian positions later on,” Salem told MEE.
“The principal goal is for this study to make the army officers more capable of taking decisions and making well-calculated military assessments.”