April 4, 2023 Special Dispatch No. 10550

Former Egyptian Culture Minister: Egypt's Absence From The Field Of Scientific Achievement Should Be A Source Of Concern

April 4, 2023
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 10550

In an article he published in the daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, former Egyptian culture minister Hilmi Al-Namnam complains that Egypt does not attribute sufficient importance to the sciences, which is one of the reasons no Egyptian has even won a Nobel Prize in the scientific fields. Since Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, the Egyptians have yearned for another win in this area – but not in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Economics, which, says Al-Namnam, improve the lot of humanity and are the true measure of a country's progress.

What is even worse, he adds, is that the Egyptians are insufficiently aware of the importance of scientific achievement, and that neither society nor the authorities are greatly concerned about the state of the science faculties in the country's universities. As a result, Egypt does not produce researchers or inventors who could offer solutions to its problems and crises, he says, and notes that some Egyptians even take a hostile attitude towards science.

Hilmi Al-Namnam (Image:

The following are translated excerpts from his article:[1]

"…The truth is that we [Egyptians] take an interest only in the Nobel Prize in Literature [and not in other fields]. Every year we are eager to know what Arabs and Egyptians have been nominated for it and who has a best chance of winning it…

"We will certainly be happy if one of our Arab writers wins it again, but if this doesn't happen it will not be the end of the world, because literary achievement is relative. We have great authors who have deserved to win the Nobel Prize for years, but perhaps [they have not won it because] their work is not sufficiently known [in translation to] European languages, or for some other reason of this kind. This must not preoccupy us to the extent that we develop an , paranoia or feelings of inferiority about it. Our cultural and literary heritage includes magnificent works [such as] One Thousand and One Nights, The Epistle of Forgiveness by Al-Ma'arri[ii] and Al-Mutanabbi's poetry,[iii] to name but a few. And among modern works we can mention the renowned [writer] Taha Hussein,[iv] who was nominated for the [Nobel] Prize multiple times; Yahya Haqqi,[v] Salah 'Abdel Sabour,[vi] and others.

"What should really concern us is our complete absence among the Nobel Prize [laureates] in areas other than literature and peace,[vii] i.e., [the fields of] medicine, physics, chemistry and economics. These are the fields that reflect the progress and real growth of countries and peoples, and we are absent from these fields. I am not [even] talking about winning the prize, only about being nominated for it, and making some real scientific achievement that takes humanity forward and gives it something new.

"In Egypt we have great physicians, and some of our senior physicians are leading [experts] on certain types of surgery. But we do not seem to be responsible for any significant discovery in treating some illness or eliminating some medical problem. The same can be said for the field of economics. The economic crises throughout the Arab region, and the problems of poverty and [lack of] development, have not yielded any pioneering model or economic genius that presented a new theory or a creative solution that could help resolve these crises. This is also true of chemistry and physics. We have some scientists who excel at specific aspects of research, but we are still far from presenting a great discovery or invention like those we see in the U.S. and Europe, or like those of Avicenna,[viii] Ibn Al-Hayhtam,[ix] Ibn Al-Nafis[x] and others in our history.

"In short, we have no nominees for the Nobel Prize in any of these fields, and no winners. And with all due respect for the late Ahmed Zewail, who won [the Nobel Prize in Chemistry][xi] – his win and achievement were attributed to the American university where he worked… So when it comes to winning [the Nobel Prize], he was an American of Egyptian origin.

"Our bigger problem is that we are not worried or embarrassed about our absence [from these fields]. The newspapers ignore this issue and do not address it. Nor are any questions posed to the universities [in Egypt] about this issue or about the state of their science faculties, [such as]: How many labs do you have? Are they sufficiently budgeted? Do they have enough raw materials? Do the young scientists have access to the resources [they need] for their research? And does academic and university red tape block their ambitions? There are many questions that must be asked sternly and firmly.

"Sadly, [our] science faculties are not among the renowned ones and nobody teats them as such. They should be engines of [scientific] discovery and should receive more attention from the public and society as a whole and from all those in charge… Their job is to provide us with scientists and inventors.   

"This is true not only of the scientific faculties, but also of the faculties of engineering and agriculture. How have they [contributed to creating] serious research frameworks to tackle our serious problems, for instance [by finding ways to] desalinate seawater more cheaply or in greater volume? Will we ever manage to desalinate as much [water] as we draw from the Nile? We definitely need a discovery that will take the homeland several steps forward. 

"We know that our culture is a very literary one, and that its scientific facets are limited, or at least are not at the top of our agenda. Moreover, some among us, even among the educated, are hostile to science and act against it in many ways. That is why every year we are interested only in the Nobel Prize in Literature, and continue to argue and quarrel about Naguib Mahfouz's Nobel Prize – even though he won it 35 years ago, namely more than two generations ago – while completely ignoring the scientific fields of expertise. In our [modern] world nations are not built by means of literature alone, but by means of science and more science."


[1] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 22, 2023.

[2] Abu Al-'Alaa Al-Ma'arri (973-1057) was a Syrian writer and philosopher.

[3] Abu Al-Ṭayyib Aḥmad Ibn Al-Husayn Al-Mutanabbi (915-965) was a renowned Arab poet who lived in Iraq.

[4] Egyptian intellectual, writer and historian Taha Hussein (1931-1981) was one of the leaders of the modernist movement in North Africa and the Middle East. He also served as Egypt's minister of education in the 1950s.

[5] Egyptian author Yahya Haqqi (1905-1992) was a pioneer of Arabic short-story writing. 

[6] Salah 'Abdel Sabour (1931-1981) was an Egyptian poet and a literature editor at several Arabic newspapers.

[7] In 1978 Egyptian president Anwar Sadat won the Nobel Prize for Peace along with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. 

[8] Abu 'Ali Hussein Ibn Al-Sina (980-1035), aka Avicenna, was a Persian physician, philosopher, and scientist who is considered one of the greatest thinkers and medical scholars in history.

[9] Ḥasan Ibn Al-Haytham (695-1040), also known as Alhazen, was an Arab thinker who made significant contributions to the sciences of optics, anatomy, engineering, mathematics and other fields.

[10] ʿAlaa Al-Din Abu Al-Ḥasan Ali Ibn Abi Ḥazm Al-Qarashi al-Dimashqi, known as Ibn Al-Nafīs (1210-1288), was a physician and polymath who also dealt with literature, theology, biology, law, jurisprudence and philosophy, among other fields.

[11] Egyptian-American chemist Ahmed Zewail (1946-2016) won the Nobel Prize in 1999 for his work on femtochemistry.

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