CAIRO, Egypt — They rolled out the red carpet for President Barack Obama on Tuesday at Cairo University — sweaty workmen with measuring tape yelling over one another in Arabic about how to arrange burgundy runners down the main aisle of the conference hall — as Egypt's largest and oldest secular university made the final preparations for his arrival.
"Nobody talks about anything else at the moment," university President Hossam Kamel said, taking time out for an interview in his office upstairs from the work crews. "We are honored that Cairo University was chosen for this historical event. I think it is going to open a new page of relations between the United States and the Islamic world. He's representing change."
Obama's scheduled speech here Thursday has overtaken almost everything else. Exams have been rescheduled, so the campus can be closed for the day to all but about 3,500 invited guests. Television screens are being set up in dormitories to broadcast the speech. U.S. and Egyptian security officers and embassy officials are everywhere.
Students gossip about the sudden campus makeover: landscaping, new flags, major cleaning and repairs. Some welcome the improvements, even if the motivation is political, while others complain that the money should be spent in the classrooms.
Professors and activists are using the occasion to draw attention to concerns about academic freedom at the university.
Academics and human rights activists have complained for years about interference by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime. They describe a climate in which state police are ever present, the curriculum is over-regulated and self-censorship has weakened instruction in subjects such as politics, religion and literature.
"We have three Nobel Prize winners from this university. There are good works going on in this university," said Mohamed Abu Elghar, a physician and university professor who's active in the campus's academic freedom movement. "But in reality, the past two or three decades, the government interfered a lot in the activities of the university. The posts of leadership are appointed by the government: the deans, directors and heads of departments. These are academic positions."
A report by Human Rights Watch in 2005 found that "academic freedom violations pervade the country's system of higher education" and that state security forces sometimes used violence, illegal detentions or torture to clamp down on student protests or activism.
The government also uses its powers to block permits for surveys or other research that officials consider threatening or improper.
Kamel, the university's president, downplayed those criticisms, however, and said he'd been willing to talk to protesters about their concerns.
"We care very much about academic freedom," he said. "They can teach whatever they want. We don't believe it's a big issue. Cairo University has always been a place for the liberal culture in the country."
Such concerns are an awkward irony for Obama, who once practiced law at a civil rights firm and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago.
In an interview this week with the British Broadcasting Corp., Obama said that democracy, the rule of law, free speech and religious freedom "are not simply principles of the West to be hoisted on these countries" in the Middle East, but "universal principles."
How that will affect what he says Thursday is less clear, however. "The danger, I think, is when the United States or any country thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture," he told the BBC.
Cairo University was founded in 1908 with money from the then-ruling Egyptian royal family as an alternative to the city's historic religious university, al Azhar, which is co-sponsoring Obama's speech. The public, secular university now educates 180,000 students on campus and another 70,000 through Internet programs. Its student population is 52 percent female.
Its professors have taught some of the region's most accomplished thinkers of the 20th century, and a few infamous ones.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat studied there. So did actor Omar Sharif, former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, al Qaida's Ayman al Zawahri and Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The university also has hosted many famous speakers, from Theodore Roosevelt to Nelson Mandela.
Officials welcomed a McClatchy reporter and translator to the campus, but they displayed the sort of wariness that sparks complaints about interference, dispatching a university employee as an escort to observe several student interviews.
Those students, before and during the escort's presence, reflected the range of local attitudes about Obama's speech.
Many wanted to hear him publicly take a tougher line toward Israel than former President George W. Bush did, to compel Israel to cease settlement construction and military operations that harm Palestinians. "The nature of the relationship between the U.S. and Zionism can very much affect our relations," said Ahmed Medhat, a 22-year-old geophysics student with a religious beard.
Amira Shafik, a 25-year-old biology student who was wearing a colorful red and white head scarf, hoped that Obama would use the occasion to humanize Muslims in Americans' eyes. "We hope that his speech changes their point of view about us," she said. "A lot of them see Islam as extreme."
Few singled out government repression as hurting their education; Medhat said that a lack of funding and the mismanagement of existing budgets was a far worse problem. He didn't seem fazed by the university escort who was listening in.
"I'm not scared," he said.
Some thought that Obama's visit was being overblown.
"I'm not really that into politics," Mai Mohamed said, shrugging. Mohamed, 19, is studying business and is feeling demoralized about the economy and her job prospects.
Her mother, Manal Abdel Rahman, who accompanied her daughter to help her study for exams, is frustrated with Mohamed's apathy. She said that Obama could affect their lives, starting with ending "these wars around the world that America's involved in." She said she didn't quite trust any American politician, but, referring to one of Obama's campaign catchwords, said pointedly, "We have hope."
Special Correspondent Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.
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