Meet the Neighbors

A university initiative attempts to engage AUC with its surrounding community.

For nearly a century after the American University in Cairo’s establishment in 1919, its main campus enjoyed an enviable place in the geography of the Egyptian capital. Its palatial structures and palm-lined gardens adjoined Tahrir Square, putting students and faculty in the heart of the Arab World’s most politically powerful and culturally rich metropolis. In 2008, AUC’s main campus moved to New Cairo, a characterless zone of glitzy malls and gated housing for the rich fashioned out of the desert thirty miles away.

The transition prompted then-President Lisa Anderson to launch the Neighborhood Initiative to further AUC’s commitment to community service and engagement. While the initiative includes the Tahrir campus, where AUC has retained a few historic buildings housing an auditorium, an art gallery, and a bookstore, it is the neighborhood around the New Cairo campus that presents AUC with its greatest civic challenges. “You have a community in continuous change,” explained Khaled Tarabieh, an assistant professor of architecture and one of the initiative’s lead researchers. “Here the community gathers around traffic, consumption, and commercialism.”

Tarabieh headed the initiative’s project to map community perceptions, which led researchers to conclude that much work needs to be done to connect AUC with its neighbors. Part of the problem, Tarabieh said, is AUC’s physical isolation, due to the high walls and heavy security ringing the campus perimeter. Many Egyptians think the campus is connected to the U.S. Embassy, he said, rather than realizing that AUC is an Egyptian-American institution of higher learning that has turned out Egyptian graduates for almost a hundred years. “When you have a place with tall fences, you can cycle any rumors about what goes on inside because you are unable to see what actually happens,” he said.

Heightened security concerns following the 2011 Tahrir uprising have further isolated the New Cairo campus, Tarabieh noted. “We came out of the revolution with strains and stresses on security everywhere,” he explained. The question facing AUC is how to be secure while open to the community, he added.

Another challenge for the Neighborhood Initiative is that while AUC runs hundreds of community projects, many reach far and wide in Egypt and don’t necessarily resonate in the campus surroundings. “When you speak to our immediate, proximal neighbors, they see AUC as a center of excellence and a very prestigious institution, but they don’t see how it links to them and to their needs and their everyday lives,” said Magda Mostafa, an associate professor of architecture who is also a lead researcher on the Neighborhood Initiative.

As part of the initiative, AUC signed a memorandum of understanding with the Cairo governorate to promote sustainable urban development. Mostafa also sits on the Cairo Heritage Development Committee working to revitalize downtown Cairo and historic districts. “That positioning helps us try to engage in these conversations, and help guide them,” Mostafa said.

The planners of the New Cairo campus certainly had good intentions for AUC’s community engagement. The original blueprints called for the extension of the Cairo Metro to New Cairo, with a station to be situated outside the university’s main entrance. Meant to connect campus and community, the metro line was never completed and the station remains only a hope.