I rode out today to the stunning new campus of the American University in Cairo, set on 260 acres of repurposed desert in the sprawling exurb of New Cairo. AUC has long been the school of choice for the Egyptian elite (President Hosni Mubarak's son and heir apparent Gamal is an alum; First Lady Suzanne Mubarak has a building named for her) and the ultramodern $400 million campus fits perfectly among the high-end gated communities springing from the flat sands east of Cairo, with topographically inspired names like Mountain View, Jolie Heights and Moon Valley.
I'd come to speak to a friend's journalism class about what it's like to work as a foreign correspondent in Egypt, but the moment I passed through the gates I felt like I could have been on a college campus in my native southern California. The palm trees, the fountains, the smiling gaggles of stylish young people in Ray-Bans, few of whom seemed to be carrying any books. And most stunning of all: there were lawns. I tried to think of the last time I'd sat on grass in Cairo. I'd been warned that AUC was something of a bubble -- but oh, what a nice bubble it was.
After my little song-and-dance to the journalism students, my friend and I walked through the stone quad and saw students standing in lines waiting to vote. It was election day for members of a campus-wide student advocacy board that weighs in on discplinary matters. And it seemed a serious matter, with student council members in black t-shirts standing watch, metal gates protecting the voting area and posted signs prohibiting cell phone use while casting ballots. (I was told that one of the main issues the advisory group weighs in on is PDA -- public displays of affection -- which is a strict no-no for AUC students. So these guys have an important bailiwick.)
My friend had a thought. "Watch this," she said to me, and she stopped a couple of female students who were in line to ask why they were voting. They all said that they knew people who were running or felt that the positions at stake were important.
Then my friend asked them if they were registered to vote in the upcoming national elections, for parliament, on Nov. 28. The eager faces vanished. One student had registered to vote. The others said, unconvincingly, that they planned to register soon.
It's no surprise, my friend explained. The campus election matters in the students' lives; the national elections feel pointless. With President Mubarak's ruling party cracking down on the free press and accused of rigging the campaign, and formal opposition parties banned anyway, there's no suspense on the national scene. This election was clearly the freest one these young people will participate in this month.
And they're among the very luckiest ones. When I came home this afternoon and flipped on the news, I learned that a few miles away, students at another institution, Cairo University, had staged a demonstration to call for free national elections. CNN reported that about 500 anti-riot police showed up to watch about 40 students protesting.
At AUC, one girl in designer jeans and oversized sunglasses summed up the difference between the two elections simply: "This one is fair."
(Photo by the American University in Cairo)