The Air We Breathe and the Water We Drink: Why Reforming Egypt’s...

The Air We Breathe and the Water We Drink: Why Reforming Egypt’s Education System is the Only Pathway to Lasting Change

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By Salma Khamis

Egyptian students at a school in Giza. Courtesy of Mail & Guardian Africa.

To be completely honest, as an Egyptian, I dread the passing of every January since the now notoriously tragic uprising in 2011. I dread the publication of article upon article either commemorating or denouncing the January 25 movement, and yet am simultaneously aware of the obligation I have to read them all. Dissecting each and every headline, I struggle to locate my position within the whirlpool of misfortune that has thus far characterized Egypt’s road to democracy which, once brightly lit with the inspirational slogans of January 25 and its passionate and youthful liberal activists, now appears to have drifted off the beaten path towards a heartbreaking dead-end.

February 11, 2011 brought with it an indescribable sense of jubilant victory. As the now infamous Al-Ahram headline read, then-president Hosni Mubarak’s deposal really made it seem like “The People Overthrew the Regime.” Unbeknownst to the majority of the movement’s participants, however, they had not in fact overthrown the regime – but merely removed its figurehead. Clientelism, corruption, and insurmountably rigid sociopolitical hierarchies remain very much ingrained in the very fabric of the Egyptian system and suffice it to say that, as inspirational as the January 25 uprising was, it failed to disband these age-old structures. The story of what has unfolded since need not be retold. Sifting through any one of the myriad international news agencies’ websites on January 25 of this year yielded a plethora of articles by activists, pundits, and academics retelling the past five years’ narrative and reflecting on the lessons learned from the uprising.

January article pic 1 al ahram carnegie endowment
Front page of prominent pro-government newspaper, Al-Ahram, on February 12th, 2011. Headline reads: ‘The People Have Overthrown the Regime.’ Courtesy of The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Similarly unsurprising, however, is the marked absence of a comparable narrative in local Egyptian media outlets. To be clear, the Egyptian journalism industry is notoriously biased and rarely yields examples of journalistic integrity. That said, however, it is still worth considering the narrative circulating within Egypt’s borders about the undeniably unprecedented uprising that took place five years ago within Egypt’s borders. One could argue that it is that which is being talked about locally, and the way in which it is talked about, that matters most. As eloquent as the Huffington Post’s or the New York Times’ writers may be, they contribute little towards the mass formation, or deformation, of domestic attitudes and reactions to the presiding sociopolitical order in Egypt.

Who is saying what at home?

Having considered the language emerging from a number of Egypt’s most prominent news outlets, it appears as though there are two fundamentally orienting narratives defining that which is written with respect to the January 25th protest movement. On the one hand, we have a series of articles premised on the movement’s overwhelming success. These articles are generally geared towards highlighting how President Abd el Fattah el Sisi is leading the country towards the democratic and egalitarian dream that the January 25 movement sought to pursue. On the other hand, an equally inaccurate narrative focuses on the movement’s detrimental effect on the country, pointing to the social and economic deterioration that has since occurred as justification for why the date shouldn’t even be celebrated as the movement’s anniversary, but rather recognized for having originally been National Police Day. Although similarly bent on asserting how Sisi is leading the country out of the mess it apparently willingly put itself in, this narrative is comparatively more focused on demonizing the youth protest movement as well as Islamist factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood as the reasons behind the past five years’ unrest.

It’s safe to say that both narratives, either that of the movement’s overwhelming success or failure, do little towards inspiring any tangible, positive change in Egypt. In either case, pundits are concerned with the memory of January 25, not its undeniably ongoing reality. As much as most would hate to admit, little has changed since the movement’s first slogans were uttered five years ago this month. If anything, President Sisi’s regime has brought with it increased police brutality; heightened surveillance of opposition groups; increasingly limited avenues for public expression; ever-widening socioeconomic gaps; pitiful progress towards gender equality; and thinly-veiled prospects of increased political representation that serve only to once again concentrate political power in the hands of a very rich, albeit very incompetent, few.

However, the fact that Sisi’s regime is authoritarian, bureaucratic, and astoundingly oppressive in nature is nothing new. What has yet to be aptly considered, however; is how to bring about tangible sociopolitical change within the presiding system – short of overhauling it altogether and finding ourselves back where we started five years ago. For, somewhere in between the polarities of either calling for the third mass uprising in five years on one side, or hailing the current system’s achievements on the other, there lies today’s undeniable reality: an incoming generation of increasingly marginalized, disillusioned, and under-educated youth who face sky-high unemployment rates and a weak, if not non-existent, social safety net to shelter them from abject poverty and the myriad social ills that accompany it.

Consider the following, for example: according to figures from the United Nations’ Development Program, Egypt’s adult literacy rate remains stuck at 73.9%. Enrollment in tertiary-level education is a meager 30.1% and, at the primary school level, the ratio of pupils to teachers is a staggering 27.7:1. In contrast, consider the fact that Egypt’s neighbor, Jordan, enjoys a 97.9% adult literacy rate and a 46.6% level of enrollment in tertiary education. Moving further eastwards, 69.4% of Turkey’s population is or has been enrolled in tertiary education and each of the country’s primary school teachers bears the responsibility of 7 less pupils than had they taught in Egypt, with a Turkish pupil to teacher ratio of 20.1:1.

“The air we breathe and the water we drink”:

Egypt’s first-ever Nobel Prize laureate, celebrated author, intellectual, and former Minister of Education, Taha Hussein, referred to the importance of education as comparable to “the air we breathe and the water we drink.” As pertinent now as it was when Hussein first proclaimed it so in 1950, the only way to ensure the development of Egypt’s upcoming generation is not hindered by the shackles presented by the prevailing political environment is to guarantee their access to high-quality, affordable, education. As heartbreaking as it is for my inner revolutionary to admit, gone is the age of effective mass revolt in Egypt, at least for the time being. Neither the economy, nor the political establishment, will be able to stomach yet another tumultuous period of instability in favor of a successful democratic transition. That doesn’t mean, however, the complete impossibility of enacting tangible sociopolitical reform, the likes of which can only be feasibly sought through a complete reformation of the current educational system.

Precisely, the first point of concern should be the complete reconsideration of nationally-sanctioned curricula, particularly at the primary and secondary levels of education. Studies have long proven the inefficacy of curricula based primarily on memorization, and yet such is the content of the present-day Egyptian education system. Overly exhaustive and inefficient curricula focused on the needless regurgitation of contextually irrelevant and politically informed information should be replaced with material more attune to the demands presented by the labor market, especially as the government reportedly seeks to reorient the labor force more towards the tertiary sector in the hopes of stimulating economic development.

Furthermore, the highly centralized and bureaucratic system with which academic deans are appointed to their positions in pubic universities by the President should be disbanded so as to fully depoliticize the educational domain from its political counterpart. It is unrealistic to demand impartiality from government-appointed faculty deans, whose job security rests primarily on their ability to indulge the powers that be and their politically motivated social policies.

Important, too, is the stringent enforcement of student attendance, not just enrollment – particularly at the primary and secondary levels of education. Although, for example, official sources cite the level of primary school enrollment to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 95%, an overwhelming majority of primary schools simultaneously feature over 80% illiteracy rates due in part to the effect of meager student attendance rates. Moreover, the transition from primary to secondary education is thus made all the more difficult as a large amount of secondary school students drop out in their first year, having barely attended primary school and therefore graduated to the next level with inaccurate or falsified credentials.

The prioritization of teacher training and reimbursement need also be considered pivotal to the overall reformation of the Egyptian educational system. In a country with over one million teachers, the way in which the Ministry of Education and their own Teacher’s Union treats them is deplorable to say the least. From as early as 2005, teachers have been striking regularly to demand increased pay and fringe benefits as they face an average class size at the primary school level of 43 students. In addition, with adequate training and governmental oversight, one would hope to see an end to the almost regular flow of headlines regarding the endemic level of child abuse taking place in Egypt’s public school system.

The above is but the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Egypt’s educational system needs to undergo so as to yield a motivated and well-informed generation capable of contributing positively and productively to the country’s political, social, and economic development. Just as there have been two equally destructive narratives surrounding the January 25 movement circulating throughout domestic media outlets, there too exists two equally valid forms of revolution, both armed with the potential to succeed, depending on the presiding context within which they are pursued. The insurgent revolution is that which we have already attempted, and largely failed at, in Egypt. Grassroots public uprisings that seek to return the power thus far concentrated on the inside of the system to the hands of the people on the outside of the system. Alternatively, the more gradual process of revolutionizing the consciousness of upcoming generations can be sought through granting them the invaluable gift of knowledge and the depoliticized spaces in which to engage in its pursuit. This, I believe, is the only option left to enact any kind of tangible change in Egypt, from the inside, out.

At the risk of echoing the clichéd sentiments of many a commentator before me, I nevertheless close with the following: The January 25 uprising did indeed fail to realize its political goals. However, coming to terms with this failure and harnessing the spirit of the movement’s initial inception to pursue change from within the presiding system is the surest way to ensure that, for the thousands upon thousands of martyrs who died dreaming of a better future for themselves, we can at least seek to guarantee it for their children.

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