Boo CASA! Yay AUC!

Cairo, Egypt

The Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) has canceled their spring semester, despite the resumption of near-normality in the streets of Cairo. They are also withdrawing funding for our stipends.

However, we’ve just received confirmation from the Arabic Language Institute at American University in Cairo. They will be providing our spring semester anyway, hopefully beginning as soon as Monday the 28th. They will also be providing our stipends.

For background, after recommending to CASA students that they return to Cairo, the University of Texas canceled the remainder of the CASA program for this year, including the stipends on which we were expecting to live until summer. (One of us is supporting two households on her stipend, while most of the rest of us at the very least have no other source of income until September, having counted on this fellowship to last until 1 June.) It took the University of Texas and their woefully misinformed security “specialists” two weeks to make this decision, and we have had no further communication from them since that decision 10 days ago, despite repeated emails from CASA Fellows for more details of how various elements of the program will be resolved.

Academically, CASA is one of the best Arabic language programs in the world, and has been for 40 years. However, I will not be able to recommend it to colleagues in future without serious caveats. The actions of the University of Texas regarding the CASA program have been chaotic, unorganized, and unprofessional. Had CASA students been in any real danger – and fortunately there was only one life-threatening but safely resolved incident during the revolution – there is no indication that UT would have even known about it in time to do anything. Only now, when the danger is passed, are they concerned about the “liability” of our staying on in Cairo, when we’ve already signed paperwork absolving them of all liability.

Despite operating for 40 years in Cairo, it became clear in this crisis that no one in CASA knew who was authorized to make critical decisions about student safety, evacuation, financial concerns like the distribution of stipends to pay our rent and food, or about the continuation of the program itself. It took 18 days, until the day Mubarak stepped down and the revolution ended, for CASA and UT to make the decision to suspend the program. It took them a further 10 days to respond to a single emailed question from CASA Fellows. If we had questions, we were instructed to contact the program director via Skype (she was not responding to emails, either) and when contacted she could only say that she was not authorized to make any decisions or recommendations.

I have worked with Rotary Youth Exchange, studied abroad with Goucher College, and was a Peace Corps Volunteer. In all those circumstances, not only were lines of communication and responsibility made clear to program staff, but also to program participants. Emergency plans were in place, lines of communication established, and participants were trained to take advantage of them. Not so with CASA and the University of Texas. Though this crisis was unexpected at this time, it was not unimaginable that an increasingly impoverished, overpopulated country ruled by a brutal dictator might some day, quite suddenly, fall apart. We are only lucky that Egypt did not do so as spectacularly and tragically as Libya. CASA and UT’s lack of preparedness is inexcusable.

On the other hand, I am happy to report that the Arabic Language Institute (ALI) at AUC, which hosts CASA in Cairo, has stepped in to fill the gap. They have arranged for our classes to resume, our stipends to be paid, our health insurance coverage to continue, and the CASA/Cairo office to reopen. While they may not have communicated with us as often as we might have wished, lines of communication were always open, and emails have always been responded to promptly and as completely as was possible under the circumstances.

Of course, this is a mutually beneficial arrangement for ALI. Most of their students have left Egypt for good, and most of their teachers were looking at having no jobs this semester. With all CASA students – without exception! – expressing a strong desire to complete our studies despite (or perhaps because of) uncertainty about Egypt’s political future, it makes sense for ALI to provide our classes. And we are glad to give the work to the amazing teachers who have helped us understand Egypt’s revolution on a deep level most foreigners in Egypt don’t.

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