CAIRO – From overcrowded schools in the southern city of Beni Suef to public universities in coastal Alexandria to an elite American university in the desert outskirts of Cairo, an unprecedented wave of strikes has erupted across Egypt's education system. Tens of thousands of teachers, university professors, and students are taking part in mass protests that have varying demands but all echo the same revolutionary calls for change.
With the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February following an 18-day popular uprising, longtime demands for education reform in Egypt -- from increased teachers' wages to the removal of regime-appointed officials -- suddenly went from distant hope to achievable reality. But, as with so much else in the post-Mubarak transitional period, change in the education system has been halting and haphazard. While teachers and students alike quickly mobilized in the revolution's early weeks to set out clear agendas for reform, they were met with resistance from the powers that be -- namely the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that took power after Mubarak's ouster and the cabinet of ministers that serves under it.
Mounting frustration boiled over this month, culminating in a series of protests and strikes across multiple levels of the education system.
The first major action was on Sept. 10, when 15,000 schoolteachers, comprising dozens of education movements and associations from governorates across the country, gathered to protest in front of the ministerial cabinet's headquarters in downtown Cairo. Their demands include the resignation of Education Minister Ahmed Moussa, increased wages, implementation of a 200 percent productivity bonus promised to public-sector workers, securing of employees' tenure and benefits through permanent contracts, and setting a minimum wage of roughly $200 per month.
A week later, on Sept. 17, the first day of the academic year, tens of thousands of teachers began a nationwide, open-ended strike -- the first collective action by Egypt's educators since 1951.
Although the Education Ministry announced that the number of teachers participating in the strike was minimal, media reports, citing activists and organizers, estimated that 65 to 75 percent of Egypt's 1 million teachers did not report to their classrooms.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf responded by saying that meeting the teachers' demands along with those of 6 million other public servants would be a difficult task, but added he is working with the education minister to resolve teachers' grievances with the goal of bringing the strike to an end.
"The teachers' revolution has begun, and it will not stop unless there is immediate reform," says Barakat El Sharafawi, the Giza representative of the Independent Teachers' Syndicate, which called for the strike. "We won't back down until at least the education minister resigns and there is a timetable in place for our other demands."