A Better Citizen

Mahmoud El-Gamal will be forever nostalgic about his days as an economics undergraduate at the American University in Cairo. In July, he became the university’s provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Mahmoud El-Gamal will be forever nostalgic about his days as an economics undergraduate at the American University in Cairo. In the 1980s, before heading to the United States for graduate school and a distinguished academic career, he was a fixture of AUC’s vibrant downtown campus. He fondly remembers helping a professor develop a new course on Islamic finance. He enjoyed listening to youthful musicians, watching Youssef Chahine films, and even writing poetry. None of that got in the way of his studies: he received the President’s Cup for graduating at the top of his class.

Three decades later, El-Gamal, 52, has returned to Egypt, and to AUC. In July, he became the university’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. When receiving the offer, he told his wife, Ghada: “If I don’t do this, then I will probably never work in Egypt.” He has his work cut out for him. El-Gamal’s years away coincided with the long reign of former President Hosni Mubarak. Also, since his graduation in 1983, AUC has more than doubled in size to a student body of more than 6,500, and 500 members of the faculty. The university also operates on a new $400 million main campus in the suburb of New Cairo, about an hour’s drive from the century-old Tahrir Square campus in downtown Cairo.

One of El-Gamal’s goals as provost is to inspire greater passion for learning and critical thinking among students, and to facilitate more and better teaching by the faculty. He speaks enthusiastically about AUC’s recent efforts to implement a bridge program for freshmen from Egyptian high schools that were not intellectually rigorous; the program helps students develop their writing and critical thinking skills. “It starts by having the right people teaching courses, so they can ignite the passion in the student to pursue what they’re good at, rather than what the parents want them to be,” he says.

Many students and parents, El-Gamal frets, don’t value a liberal arts education and instead think of universities as pre-professional training grounds. He seeks to encourage students to study and work in the fields they are passionate about. In turn, he argues, graduates will end up being better managers and leaders because they received a rounded education. “A liberal arts education produces a better citizen,” he says.

El-Gamal holds a joint appointment at Rice University as a professor of economics and statistics and the endowed Chair in Islamic Economics, Finance, and Management. He joined Rice in 1998 and has also served as a scholar at the university’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. He previously taught at the California Institute of Technology as well as the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the University of Rochester. He has a Master of Science degree in statistics from Stanford University and received his doctorate in economics from Northwestern University. His personal blog boasts a sizeable collection of verse written over the years, in both Arabic and English—odes to Cairo and the Nile River, to Allah and childhood, to the loneliness and hope inherent in travel.

El-Gamal is a leading scholar in the field of Islamic economics, the author of Islamic Finance: Law, Economics, and Practice and co-author of Oil, Dollars, Debt, and Crises: The Global Curse of Black Gold.

He pursued his study of Islamic finance to have a greater impact than the “technical, esoteric stuff” he was used to producing in his research. He started by translating 1,600 pages of Islamic jurisprudence that define Islamic finance laws into a reference book. He wanted the majority of Muslims who are not Arabic speakers—in Malaysia and Indonesia, for example—to better understand the field.

El-Gamal’s critiques of Islamic finance produced some heartburn throughout the industry. “I basically dissected all the smoke and mirrors tricks on which the industry was built,” he explains. For example, he argued that the banks were using loopholes in Islamic jurisprudence to provide secure Western-style lending in a way that could be considered acceptable in Islamic law. In what he dubbed “sharia arbitrage,” the banks were still making profits and borrowers still owing fees.

For a spell in the mid-1990s, El-Gamal served in the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East department with responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. After the signing of the historic Oslo Accords, his mission was to help formulate effective monetary policy while Palestinian negotiators worked on a final deal for a Palestinian state. El-Gamal believed that working at the IMF was an opportunity to “get an economy right,” but he returned to academia as the peace process badly faltered.

Expertise in finance brings some added value to El-Gamal’s academic post at AUC, given the university’s plans for austerity budgets amid a meltdown of Egypt’s economy following the 2011 uprising that began outside AUC’s Tahrir Square campus gates. “Strategy and growth are not one and the same thing,” says El-Gamal. “AUC has grown too fast, and may need to go through a period of consolidation.”

Clearly, El-Gamal intends to make an impact with his return to Egypt and AUC. He has never been one to stand on the sidelines. After the September 11 attacks, he decided to give a public address or khutbah at his local mosque in Houston—a response to “being sick and tired of being defined by other people,” he explains. “Overt prejudice against Muslims and Arabs increased after 9/11, and that made Egyptian-Americans like myself more conscious of the xenophobic side of American society. However, the relatively infrequent incidents of prejudice, unfortunate as they have been, were outnumbered by acts of kindness and inclusiveness. Indeed, this openness to people of different origins and persuasions, and the freedom afforded to all such people, are the open secrets of America’s success.”