“When the economic crisis hits the elite, it means the suffering is all over the place,” said Malak Rostom, the vice president of the student union. “If we can’t afford it, we can tell how much other people are suffering.”
Some Egyptians may sneer at the problems of the children of middle- and upper-class families, worried about tuition increases that dwarf the salaries of the country’s vast legions of impoverished. But generations of graduates of the American University have helped lead Egypt’s government, business and nonprofit sectors, so any problem on the campus can spiral outward with magnified effect.
“You’ll say, ‘Those are the proletariat?’” one prominent television host, Amr Adeeb, said in a recent broadcast, as if expecting a collective eye-roll among his audience. “Fine, but don’t you want to have some educated people in this society?”
The American University protests began a week ago, after the university administration staged a forum to discuss the repercussions of the central bank’s decision to decrease the value of the Egyptian pound against the dollar, in an effort to thwart black-market currency traders and shore up the flailing economy. The pound is now trading at about 15 per dollar, up from 8.8 on Nov. 3, when the pound was floated.
The bank’s decision was part of a government effort to win a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, which came through last Friday. But for students whose tuition is tied to the United States dollar, the currency flotation threatened to translate to an instant increase in fees, to about 187,000 Egyptian pounds a year for the cheapest degree, from about 133,000 pounds.
The American University’s 6,559 students are the apex of an elite group of 111,600 students enrolled at private universities, where the curriculum is often taught in English and fees reach thousands of dollars each semester. The vast majority of the country’s 1.8 million university students attend overcrowded, ramshackle public institutions, often looking at the elite campuses with envy and disdain.
If the American University’s fees have long been out of reach for most Egyptians, it is worth noting that two-thirds of its students receive scholarships based on financial need, according to the administration, and some families sell off assets to pay for the education. Salam Hefzi, who is 20 and studying marketing, said that her mother, a widow, sold two apartments that Salam was meant to inherit to cover her tuition.
“The money is good for another two years, if the tuition stays the same,” Ms. Hefzi said. “My tuition might reach a quarter of a million pounds,” she added. “I’m dead scared.”
The effects of the floundering economy on the middle class may pale compared with the suffering of poor people now unable to afford basic foodstuffs, but that does not mean they are not felt.
At a Cairo mall that was all but abandoned one recent afternoon, clothing prices at H&M were going up so fast that the tags were obsolete and a cashier was informing customers of the new prices instead. Outside another nearly empty mall, one shopper, Roaya Iskander, 22, said that she and her husband were putting off having children because of the unstable economy.
Many workers said they had been car-pooling since gas prices rose to the equivalent of 21 cents a liter this month, up from 16 cents. Many others have lost jobs because their employers can no longer afford to import raw materials, or because sales have contracted.
Amr Alaa, 28, and his pregnant wife, Ala Mashour, 27, worked at AbbVie, an American pharmaceutical research and development company. They said they were out for sushi one night last month when they saw emails on their smartphones announcing a meeting the next day to discuss their future. Instead, they said, they turned up at the office to find themselves and 20 colleagues locked out — fired.
“We are just sitting at home depressed now,” Mr. Alaa said. “Just looking for jobs online.”
Other well-off Egyptians have tried to stave off losing their savings by purchasing apartments, bonds and gold bars: Sales of gold are up 30 to 40 percent this year, according to Ehab Wassef, who represents gold sellers in the Union of Chambers of Commerce. But many more, it seems, woke up the day after the currency was floated and found their savings had been halved.
“You live at a certain level, and it’s hard to go down,” said Sana Saleh, 45, a widow who had cut back on food and dialed down her electricity use, trying to keep her daughter in a private school whose tuition is 1,700 Egyptian pounds ($113) a month.
Timothy Kaldas, nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said that wealthy Egyptians spent a significant amount on education, and that most private schools based tuition on the value of the dollar, because they had many foreigners as faculty members.
American University’s tuition — which already went up 6 percent for this academic year — is particularly vulnerable to currency fluctuations. One half of the tuition is set in Egyptian pounds, the other half in United States dollars, but students generally pay the total in pounds, according to the official rate set at the central bank on the day they are paying.
After the student protests began, the university administration agreed to keep this semester’s fees based on the 8.8 pound per dollar rate, regardless of when they are paid. Now students are worried about next semester.
“There will not be a quick fix or an instant solution,” the university president, Francis J. Ricciardone, said in a statement. “We are looking at ways now to ensure that no student is forced to leave A.U.C. due to inability to pay tuition.”
It’s too late for Mohamed, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student, who spoke on the condition that his family name not be used because he was ashamed of his situation.
Mohamed said that he relied on a scholarship to cover 30 percent of his tuition, which he expected to jump to 230,000 Egyptian pounds a year from about 170,000. His father, the principal of an upscale private school, would not be able to afford it.
“Now I am looking for another university,” Mohamed said. “My dreams have been thrown away.”