It's as if he has a superhero secret identity: On the Caltech campus, Ahmed Zewail is a mild-mannered Egyptian American professor of chemistry and physics who won the Nobel Prize for cracking the secrets of molecules with femtosecond spectroscopy (a femtosecond is to a second what one second is to 32 million years). In his other identity, he is Egypt's only Nobel laureate in science, a national hero and the inspiration for Egypt's new technical and academic complex, the Zewail City of Science and Technology. And he is one of a council of elders guiding the transition to democracy in his native Egypt -- a novel experience in a nation with millenniums of history.
Zewail is a man of two worlds, a reach epitomized by the Rosetta Stone, a model of which he keeps in his Caltech office. The Rosetta Stone was discovered not far from his birthplace. Its inscriptions in three languages made the ancient world accessible to the modern one, and vice versa -- very much what Zewail himself has set out to do for Egypt and the West.
I have been going to Egypt for the last 30 years or so; I expected something would happen. Corruption was incredible. Education was deteriorating compared to what I got, which was excellent. The rich were getting super-rich and the poor were getting poorer.
I expected it might be the youth or only the poor people [who revolted]. It might be burning buildings. Maybe the army would step in; the Muslim Brotherhood might do something. What I did not expect was this organized and civil movement.
When it broke, I decided to support the youth because I knew they were waiting for people like me to say something. I gave [a broadcast carried] to millions and millions: "The time has come [for] President Mubarak to step down."
I was called upon to form something called the "group of the wise," along the lines of what this country has done during difficult times. I talked with ministers. I talked with heads of Islamic institutions. I met with leaders of the groups of the revolution.
They were determined to change their future. After 18 days of revolution, [Mubarak] decided to step down, and the rest is history.
How did you feel?
I had tears in my eyes. Egypt was the first democracy in the Middle East. Women were unveiled in the 1920s. Egypt is a country of civilization, of culture. It shouldn't be suffering.
Margaret Warner, of PBS, said sitting in public in Cairo with you was like being with a combination of Einstein and Bono. You're asked often about your future role in Egypt, perhaps even the presidency.
There was a movement to have me run as a president. [But] I came to the conclusion that the best way I can help is the way of the scientist. What Egypt needs now is somebody outside the political scene, the divisions and the parties. I'd rather have the influence than the power, and the influence to me is to build institutions of independence and democracy, to regain for Egypt prestige in education and science and technology. You cannot do this as one person, but by working with the political structure, somebody like me can play a more significant role than just being in the political system.
The Zewail City of Science and Technology got its start right after you won the Nobel Prize in 1999.
After I went to Stockholm, I had a meeting with [Mubarak]. I said Egypt needs much more in science and education, and from what I saw, he gave his order to implement it.
After that, basically for 12 years, I think I succeeded and failed. I think I succeeded in getting the Egyptian people excited about the importance of science, and this is the only way Egypt can get out of this dark ages. On the other hand, the failure was because the more [the government] saw me popular with the masses, they were jealous because they were worried that I might be replacing them. So they played all kinds of tricks. They put [the project] into the Egyptian bureaucratic machinery. They kept delaying it.
Now the cabinet of ministers voted unanimously in May to establish the Zewail City of Science and Technology. What gives me the real thrill is that we can finally get into molding the country in the right direction. The [nation's] political issues are very complex. The economic issues are very complex. There's no way they are going to be solved in a month or two. So my goal is to have a national project, something like building the [Aswan] dam of the 1960s.
Everybody seems to be excited about this. They're putting money in. Not [just] rich Egyptians, [but] ten pounds from a farmer. We want everybody to contribute -- the United States, Europeans, everybody. It's a well-defined project [to] help the whole population of Egypt. If everything goes OK, we would begin admissions in 2012.
It sounds as if your goal is that Egyptian students wouldn't have to come to the West for higher education, as you did.
They can come and visit Caltech and MIT, but they should go back and enjoy their own country and contribute to their own country.
Patt Morrison Asks: Rosetta man Ahmed Zewail
It's as if the mild-mannered Egyptian American professor has a superhero secret identity.
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