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Building Bridges between Germany and Egypt

Hoda El Mahgoub is in charge of the liaison office of Freie Universität in Kairo.

Jun 26, 2018

Hoda El Mahgoub on her visit to the university management of Freie Universität.

Hoda El Mahgoub on her visit to the university management of Freie Universität.
Image Credit: Sören Maahs

Freie Universität operates seven liaison offices worldwide to help its scholars and scientists build and maintain international networks. The office in Cairo was established in 2010, with the goal of strengthening the exchange of students and scholarly and scientific cooperation between Freie Universität and higher education institutions in Egypt and expanding these activities in the wider region, including Jordan, Lebanon, the Gulf states, and in some cases Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Hoda El Mahgoub is the successor to Florian Kohstall, who had headed the office since it first opened. “I took over a good network, and one I would like to continue to expand,” El Mahgoub said on her visit to the university management of Freie Universität.

After earning a degree in pharmacy at Cairo University, El Mahgoub worked for ten years at the German-Arab Chamber of Industry and Commerce, where she already had close contact with German institutions. Her new job was a shift from the business sector to academia: “Education can change your life,” El Mahgoub says with conviction. One of her main areas of focus is fostering greater cooperation between academia and the research sector and the world of business. She hopes to tackle a shortcoming she sees in this area, namely the lack of innovation transfer between the research sector and the market.

El Mahgoub was born in 1982, in the town of Dorsten, in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, after her father had studied medicine in the German city of Göttingen. She lived in Germany until the start of the fifth grade, learning her parents’ written language at weekly Arabic classes. She views her bilingual upbringing as a valuable asset: “I have two native languages, and I feel equally at home in German and Arabic.” After returning to Egypt with her family in 1993, El Mahgoub earned her secondary school diploma at a German school. Nowadays, her children are also growing up bilingual. Like their mother before them, they are attending a German school in Cairo.

Because values, traditions, and rules of conduct are also conveyed via the language, El Mahgoub also learned about the delicate balance of moving between two cultures along the way – which can only benefit her work as the head of the liaison office. “I work in two countries at the same time, which means I have to work with the different mindsets and temperaments all the time,” she explains. In Germany, for example, “formal business etiquette and constant hand shaking” are dominant. In Egypt, even the simple act of greeting someone can be a faux pas: When people go to shake hands, a bit of tact is needed to find out whether or not a handshake is desired. Still, foreigners in general are given greater freedom in Egypt, and Germans specifically tend to enjoy a “special bonus.” El Mahgoub says that with a bit of openness and curiosity, any German can quickly come to feel at home in Egypt as a result.

With three key Egyptian terms under one’s belt – inshallah (“if God wills it”), bukra (“tomorrow”) and malesh (“no problem”) – there’s nothing standing in the way of a successful start. These phrases fit any occasion, El Mahgoub says. Will the bus get to where it’s going in three hous? Inshallah. Is the plumber not coming today? Bukra. Did the student bomb the exam? Malesh.

El Mahgoub explains that people in Egypt are sympathetic and warmhearted, and that their dealings with each other are easygoing and spontaneous. In Germany, though, she regularly runs into prejudices, which she hopes to help eliminate. “The whole ‘first world versus third world’ dichotomy is expressed in questions like, ‘Can you even go there? Isn’t it dangerous?’” But as soon as people get to know Cairo – and especially when, having come from Berlin in late winter, they enjoy black tea with mint in the gentle afternoon warmth – the reservations disappear on their own. “The hard part is getting people to travel to Egypt in the first place,” she says.

The two countries differ in more than just culture; there are also differences in their higher education systems. More than one-half of the population of Egypt is younger than 25, so potential students make up a hefty percentage. Over the past 25 years, the number of those enrolled in higher education has nearly doubled – and it continues to rise. As a result, one of the biggest differences between Egypt and Germany is the sheer size of Egypt’s educational institutions. Several of them are among the largest in the world. Cairo University alone, the second largest higher education institution in Africa, has 280,000 students. Studying at government-run higher education institutions is free of charge in principle; the costs of instructional materials come to 500 Egyptian pounds, or about 23 euros, per student per year. There is, however, a serious mismatch between the large number of graduates and the job opportunities available: “In Egypt, a college degree is no guarantee of a job – far from it,” El Mahgoub says.

Many Egyptians lack the financial resources to study abroad, so the liaison office helps doctoral candidates who have especially bright prospects in their disciplines and need support find ways to come to Germany. In turn, higher education institutions in Egypt are often particularly appealing to scholars, scientists, and researchers from Freie Universität. In fields such as veterinary medicine, meteorology, archaeology, and Arabic language and literature, for example, Egypt offers conditions for research topics that would be impossible in Germany. Egyptologist Jochem Kahl of Freie Universität worked with Sohag University to perform excavations in the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Asyut, for example. Meteorology professor Sahar Sodoudi of Freie Universität is currently working with Cairo University and Aswan University on a project to establish urban climate labs for sustainable urban planning geared toward climate change. The project has now been extended to five other principal partner universities in Egypt and Oman, and several climate labs have already opened.

El Mahgoub’s predecessor, Florian Kohstall, is now the head of the “Welcome to Freie Universität Berlin” initiative, which helps refugees start or continue their studies at Freie Universität. He will maintain his ties with Egypt and the wider region as the person responsible for the Middle East and North Africa at the Center for International Cooperation. Kohstall views the change of leadership at the Cairo office as a positive step: “Hoda is bringing fresh impetus to the working relationship with Egyptian higher education institutions, and she will further expand on our important relationships with Egypt,” he says.