CAIRO — Cairo University has postponed student exams set for next Thursday and the Egyptian president's security service took over the campus in anticipation that President Barack Obama will address the Muslim world from its main hall.
While the American Embassy in Cairo will not confirm the venue, Egyptian officials say Cairo University will be the site of Obama's June 4 speech aimed at repairing U.S. relations with the Muslim world.
University spokesman Sami Abdel-Aziz said it is "90 percent" certain that Obama will deliver his speech from the campus, located off a palm tree-lined square on the Nile's west bank.
The landmark campus, which has been at the center of student pro-democracy protests, would provide Obama with a symbolic backdrop linked to liberal Arab learning. Its graduates include Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz.
"It is a symbol of liberalism in Egypt," said Egyptian writer Ali Salem. "People used to send students to get bachelor's degrees to Europe to come back and teach. So this university was meant to be a real window to the world."
The university was apparently chosen over another deeply symbolic setting. The 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar mosque, the heart of a revered institution for Islamic study in Cairo's crowded and conservative old quarter, was also said to have been on the short list of venues considered.
However, Egyptian security officials said Cairo University is easier to secure than Al-Azhar.
In recent years, the university has been at the center of anti-government protests. Like many of Cairo's centers of higher learning, there are followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed opposition movement, among its students and staff. It had already been under the close watch of security services, who keep tabs on student opposition supporters.
But the choice could also reflect a desire by Obama to address a broader audience including liberals and intellectuals, whereas speaking from Al-Azhar might resonate more with religious Muslims.
Established in 1908, Cairo University was the secular answer to the regional dominance of Al-Azhar University. Through an exchange of Egyptian and European scholars, it became an intellectual bridge between East and West. The university brought Western learning to Cairo, complementing the Islamic traditions of Al-Azhar.
Its students had a leadership role in protesting the British occupation of Egypt, which ended in the 1952 revolution.
President Hosni Mubarak's security service took control of the university campus on Tuesday, said an Egyptian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to release the information.
The university said technical teams were on campus Thursday to set up for the speech.
"We are preparing the facilities of the Great Hall under the supervision of the Ministry of Information, for the sound system and the cameras and these technical aspects," said spokesman Abdel-Aziz.
The Great Hall can hold more than 3,000 people. About 300 of the university's 300,000 students will be chosen to attend and exams scheduled for that day will be postponed, Abdel-Aziz said.
Though anti-American sentiment roiled the campus during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the university was buzzing Thursday with excitement over Obama's visit.
"I feel I can relate to Obama. He's African and his father is Muslim," said Abdel-Aziz Harby, a 31-year-old graduate student in educational studies. "Bush had shoes thrown at him, but that will never happen here. He (Obama) is most welcome."
Associated Press Writer Hadeel al-Shalchi contributed to this report.