Human World

Two Egyptian men of science and political unrest

As Egypt’s political upheaval and information lockdown continue, I want to dedicate a post today to two particular Egyptian men of science. I suspect both are strongly affected – in ways I can only begin to imagine – by the political unrest in the Arab world’s largest country.

The first is science journalist Mohammed Yahia, an editor at Nature Middle East, which launched in 2010 as part of the revered (among scientists) Nature Publishing Group. Yahia runs the Nature Middle East’s blog House of Wisdom, named for a library and translation institute in Baghdad, considered to have been a major intellectual center of the Islamic Golden Age from the mid-8th century to the mid-13th century. If you read the House of Wisdom blog, you might come to feel, as I do, that Yahia runs it with pride. Here’s an excerpt from his first post in February of 2010:

The House of Wisdom, founded in Baghdad, Iraq, is considered one of the most important intellectual centres in the Medieval Age. Scientists from all over the world flocked to it during the Islamic Golden Age. At that time, Baghdad became the world’s richest city and a centre of intellectual development. Among the House of Wisdom’s scholars was Al-Khawarizmi, known as the father of algebra.

Yahia is a regular blogger, and he mostly blogs about science, in particular about what scientists in the Middle East are working on. Rarely does he he venture into politics. Here’s an notable exception, from his blog of January 19, 2011.

Science usually doesn’t mix much with politics on the Arab world, which is why there was never much politics (thankfully!) on this blog. However, with the events that happened over the past month in Tunisia being the talk of practically every person on the street in the region, it was inevitable to show up here.

And more importantly, it is showing up here because of the pivotal role that academics have played in the Tunisian uprising. When an unemployed university graduate set himself on fire to protest the unemployment university graduates face in the small Middle Eastern country, it sent shock waves through the academic community.

Students, hand in hand with professors, rose to protest conditions in their country. They were soon joined by everyone else in the country until, four weeks later, they overthrew their president for 24 years, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Now this is something that normally doesn’t happen in the Middle East, and all countries are eying the small nation of Tunisia, wondering if the same could happen elsewhere, such as in Algeria. Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia.

The short answer is “probably not.”

The longer answer would explain why. Tunisia is already a well-educated country. It has the best education system compared to its neighbours. That is why when the call came for a nationwide movement amongst the educated, there were enough to carry the event through.

By contrast, Egypt, a country with a president in power since 1981, has a 30% illiteracy rate. The other, educated 70% have had a very poor education that many of them are regarded as illiterate too. Calls for action in Egypt on social networks such as Facebook usually bring together a handful of people protesting the situation. This is not enough to send ripples through the rest of the country such as what happened in Tunisia. There just aren’t enough influential intellectuals to motivate people. The lack of education means academia are not likely to carry a revolt or uprising in the populous country. Others might, but not the academics.

Yahia’s hasn’t posted since January 26, when the Egyptian Internet shutdown began, and I’m assuming his scientific passions have been superceded by the politics of the moment. For now, I’m looking forward to his next post, while keeping him in my thoughts.

Another Egyptian I’m thinking about today is Ahmed Abdel-Azeem, a mycologist (scientist who studies mushrooms) at the University of Suez Canal, Egypt. If one can judge from his writing, Abdel-Azeem is another man who takes tremendous pride in his role as scientific ambassador for the Arab world. In early 2011, he won a prestigious Rubenstein fellowship for his studies on the mushrooms of Egypt. It’s something not many of us think about, probably. Dr. Abdel-Azeem suggests that maybe we should. He’s actually working on a website called

In 2010, I published a full review of the history of mycology in Egypt, together with a checklist of 2281 species of fungi for the country, and an assessment of future perspectives for mycology in Egypt. Until that review, information about fungi from Egypt had been fragmentary and highly dispersed in many often obscure and difficult to obtain publications. The checklist greatly increased the number of fungi recorded from the country and, significantly, is the first fully documented checklist of fungi for any country in the Arabic speaking world.

Most recently I have become interested in the effect of climate change on fungi, especially the impacts of ultraviolet light on leaf and soil fungi. This in turn has led me to become involved in fungal conservation. I am a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Specialist Group for Cup Fungi, Truffles & their Allies, and am also a Founder Member of the International Society for Fungal Conservation, the first society anywhere in the world to be exclusively devoted to protecting fungi.

I don’t know either Mohammed Yahia or Ahmed Abdel-Azeem outside of the Internet. But they get the empathetic part of my brain to do a little weight-lifting. They can help us all understand that political crises, while technically about many people, are simultaneously about a few. We wish these scientists and their families the best as political unrest in Egypt continues to unfold.

EarthSky 22 for January 28, 2011

Paul Ehrlich: Humans are wired to be empathetic

Calestous Juma sees a new harvest for Africa

Shahzeen Attari on the real energy savers

January 31, 2011
Human World

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Beth Lebwohl

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