“We’ve been trained to memorise and not understand for years,” an angry teenage boy told the Egypt Independent last March, as he and his classmates marched to the Ministry of Education. “Nobody learns anything. Students have no personality, no opinions, and no future” he added.
Since the revolution, those in Egypt’s education system have been simmering with discontent. High-school students have been demonstrating to demand changes in the curriculum and education funding, strikes have shut down schools and universities since September as staff demand increased pay, and universities have been overrun with occupations.
Under Mubarak, the overstretched education system was reformed randomly and haphazardly. In 2010 when new exams were brought in, for example, the curriculum was not changed to meet them – mass failure among high school students followed. And although primary school enrolment is nearly 100%, by the age of fifteen, 18% of girls and 12% of boys are illiterate. With teachers underpaid, and resources overstretched, change is badly needed.
But the new parliament's unorthodox solution has raised concerns. They have put education reform in the hands of Salafi MP Shabaan Abdel Aleen. Aleen’s Nour party won 20% of parliamentary seats on a platform of religious revivalism. Its education policies include eradicating material that violates Islam and introducing parts of the curriculum “distinctly suited to girls, commensurate with the nature of their God-given duty in society”.
Secular activists in Egypt are understandably alarmed. One blogger called Aleen’s appointment an “act of base vandalism” and warned that “we can look at Afghanistan or Pakistan as a possible model. The education imagined by the Salafis will hobble Egyptians for decades to come, if not centuries.” One person tweeted: “this is the worst thing that could happen for Egypt, and for the entire Middle East”. Another added sarcastically that, “at last Egypt will get the school for submissive wives it has been waiting for”.
Salafis do not entirely run the committee, and any education reforms will have to pass a parliament dominated by the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood. But the impact on Egyptian society of a religiously-dominated education system is likely to be enormous – especially the division between curriculums for boys and girls.
There are also questions about how political and civic education would look like designed by a party happy with the military dominance of politics. And beyond the immediate concerns, there are also long-term questions around how the battle between different interpretations and versions of Islam will be played out.
In the wake of the revolution, the question is not just how will religion shape politics, but which form of religion. Will it be the traditionalist Islam of the clergy, modern radical forms of Islam such as Salafism, or liberal and progressive readings of Islamic tradition? In other words, with Egypt in a cultural and political flux, how will Islam look in the 21st century?
With the education system in their hands, the Salafis have gained a major advantage in this battle. But there could be an element of hope in the Salafi domination of education reform. One of the major factors constricting education in Egypt is corruption and waste. Under Mubarak, an American report found corruption even in the purchasing and printing of textbooks.
The Nour party won much support because of their reputation for honesty. They thus attracted conservative Egyptians who were disillusioned by the corruption of most traditional parties. If Nour are able to place the combating of corruption and mismanagement before pushing their form of Islam, they may be able to build the foundations for the sort of education system that is desperately needed in Egypt.
When Salafism emerged in the nineteenth century, it was in part a passionate defence of education and science against a conservative Islam which pushed uncritical thought. It is therefore possible that they can bring structural changes to the education system as a whole beyond the controversial changes they wish to make to the curriculum.
The real danger of the potential changes in the education system is the enormous division it could create within Egyptian society – a widening of the gulf between rich and poor. An extremely conservative curriculum could see richer parents sending their children to more secular private schools or even abroad for their education.
The result could be further polarisation between the rich and poor, and a further politicisation of that division. Secularism is already perceived as the ideology of the elites, and religion as the voice of the oppressed masses. This could be made real by a system where the children of the richest are taught secular ideals in walled international schools and the children of the majority taught conservative principles in schools segregated by gender.
Since the revolution, the polarisation of Egypt has been laid out clearly. For the elite, it is a threat to their positions. And for others, especially young Western-educated people, it is a danger to their most basic freedoms. The battle over church and state in Egypt is going to be bitter, laden with class overtones, and fought in classrooms and in the chambers of parliament.
Already, Cairo is a city split into two worlds. In the air-conditioned cafes of Zamalek, an entirely different view of the world has been shaped – one that is different from that found in the back-alley Shisha shops of Imbaba. The revolution briefly united these two worlds. The question now is whether a post-revolution education system can be constructed to ensure that they are not driven further apart.
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