Hot Teachers

The revolution may have left Tahrir Square, but Egypt's education system is boiling with anger.

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."

By all accounts, Egypt's state school system is a broken one. Overcrowded classrooms, with up to 60 students per class, are tended to by teachers who are among the most poorly paid civil servants in the country's vastly bureaucratic public sector. In many cases to make ends meet, teachers essentially force undereducated students to pay for private lessons to pass their grade, creating a shadow education system that places a financial burden on parents.

"The reform of the education system is for the benefit of the parents and the students more than the teachers," Sharafawi says. "Parents completely are understanding this and are supporting the strike."

The mass strike comes in defiance of reported threats by Education Ministry officials of dismissal or jail time for teachers who participate. It also comes one week after the military council announced it would broaden the scope of Egypt's long-standing emergency laws in the wake of protesters' storming of the Israeli Embassy, to be applied against "aggression against the freedom to work, sabotaging factories and holding up transport, blocking roads and deliberately publishing false news, statements or rumors."

"The right to strike is an official right for any human being working on the face of the Earth," Sharafawi counters, citing multiple international human rights laws, a 1966 U.N. treaty Egypt signed, and a 2003 labor law ratified by the Egyptian parliament. "The revolution arose to give rights to all classes of society. We are entitled to hold a peaceful strike."

The Independent Teachers' Syndicate is vowing to continue the strike and escalate its protests if demands are not met, with plans for another large demonstration at the ministerial cabinet's headquarters and the possible launch of an open sit-in in the coming days.

Mass protests have also spread to higher education, where university professors and students are threatening a strike of their own on Oct. 1, the first day of the new term. On Sept. 11, more than 5,000 professors marched to the Ministry of Higher Education after the military council and the interim government failed to meet their demands, which include the removal of presidents, deans of faculties, and their deputies at 19 state universities and their replacement with administrators selected through a democratic process. For much of Mubarak's reign, university heads were appointed by the government, and they then selected deans and vice deans throughout the school. The selection process was overseen by the State Security branch of the Interior Ministry, which chose people based largely on their loyalty to the regime. Senior university officials acted as an extension of the ruling National Democratic Party within higher education, furthering regime policies and containing any growing opposition movements -- socialist, Islamist, or otherwise -- among the student body.

"The security presence within the university was very important to the regime to control people, to control the way of thinking," says Khaled Samir, an assistant professor of cardiac surgery at Ain Shams Medical School and the spokesperson for the Unified Coalition for the Independence of Universities. "We are obliged to stop this. We are obliged to make the change real."

The professors are also demanding transparency in the management of university budgets, increased wages, and greater government spending on higher education.

Students and professors began demonstrating in mid-March, a month after Mubarak's ouster, to put pressure on the ruling military council. In early July, hundreds of university professors staged a sit-in at more than a dozen campuses across the country.

Their efforts did not go unheeded. Last month, the presidents of Cairo, Fayoum, Helwan, and Al-Wadi Al-Gadid universities stepped down before their terms expired, while eight others resigned after their terms ended. Six other university heads, however, have refused to step down, and scores of top administrators remain in their positions. Although university professors say incumbent administrators would be welcome to try to regain their position by running in democratic elections, the military council last week reiterated its refusal to force their resignations.

"We don't want to strike, but we are obliged to do this because this is our only way to say that this cannot continue," says Samir, who was among a group of professors that on Sept. 14 met with members of the Supreme Council, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the country's de facto ruler. In addition to the planned Oct. 1 strike, professors plan to surround administration offices on campuses to prevent officials from entering the buildings.

University students have fully backed their instructors. Last week, the national student union organized demonstrations on campuses across the country in solidarity with the professors and announced its intention to participate in the strike by having students not attend classes.

"Why are we keeping these administrators in place when it is well known that State Security appointed them and that many of them are involved in rampant corruption?" says Hala Ahmed Safwat, a fourth-year student at Cairo University and a member of the April 6 Youth Movement. "This revolution was a revolution of the youth, which is us," she says. "If they don't fulfill our demands, we'll do another revolution if we need to."

The unprecedented wave of education strikes hit another milestone this month when it spread beyond the country's state institutions to reach the unlikeliest of places: the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt's most elite educational establishment.

Located on the western desert fringes of Cairo in a newly developed area called the Fifth Settlement, AUC's gleaming, multimillion-dollar campus is a world away from its historical home in the heart of Tahrir Square, and it boasts a level of corporate sponsorship that would tickle the imagination of most neoliberal economists, complete with a Pepsi gate, CIB fountain, and Mobinil tower. AUC students pay $17,000 a year in tuition -- more than eight times the annual income of the average Egyptian.

Last week, thousands of students united with university workers to launch a mass strike and on-campus sit-in to protest the administration's policies. The students' demands include the reversal of a 9 percent tuition hike, permanent student representation on the university's budget committee, and transparency in school finances. But among their chief concerns was an end to what they viewed as the university's exploitive practices regarding its workers, including security guards, janitors, and groundskeepers. They accuse the administration of underpaying staff, some of whom reportedly work without contracts, insurance, or benefits for up to 16 hours a day.

"There are two letters that are very important: 'HR.' The university takes these two letters to mean 'human resources,' but they completely forgot that it also stands for 'human rights,'" says Ahmed Ezzat, 20, vice president of the student union that organized the strike. "We are demanding the human rights of the people who work at this university," he says, opting to speak in Arabic in deference to the security guards gathered around him listening.

According to several, separate accounts, striking university workers were threatened by management and were told they would be docked three days' salary for every day they participated in the sit-in. "I am here because of worsening work conditions and less pay," says Mohammed, a 26-year-old security guard who refused to give his last name. "This happened for no reason. We are not to blame for the budget, yet we work harder every day."

The situation reached a critical turning point five days into the strike when the university's president, Lisa Anderson -- a former dean of faculty at Columbia University and co-chair of Human Rights Watch/Middle East -- agreed to engage in an open forum organized by the protesting students and workers. During the discussion, which began with workers first airing their grievances, Anderson's responses were generally viewed as evasive and noncommittal. Protests erupted when Anderson decided, without warning, to leave the forum after an hour and a half and walked back inside her office surrounded by a phalanx of security guards.

Students then decided to take down the American flag flying on campus and march with it before returning it, untarnished, to the administration. "It was decided that the American flag representing ... those values [of democracy, freedom of expression, and human rights] should be dismounted and returned to professor Lisa as a reminder that she does not respect them," the students later wrote in an email to the AUC community.

Three days later, the university administration announced it had reached a compromise on many of the protesters' demands, including greater budget transparency, the creation of an ad hoc committee with student, alumni, and faculty representatives taking part in tuition and budget decisions, a guaranteed five-day work week for custodial and landscape staff, greater worker protections, and a review of employee salary levels. Anderson also stressed that no university employees would be punished for taking part in the strike.

The students and workers have announced the strike and sit-in are over, but say they will continue to push for further reforms and make sure the administration fulfills its promises.

"Whoever feels something is wrong, they should just get up and say something about it," says Omar El Sabh, a 20-year old junior. "This is the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit around all of Egypt."

David Silverman/Getty Images


Blocked Shot

Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov made a perfect fake opposition leader for the Kremlin. So why are they now forcing him out of politics?

MOSCOW — On Sept. 6, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov walked onto the basketball court at the Central Army Sports Club in Moscow and, without breaking the deadpan glare he is known for, began taking warm-up shots. Since May, when the nickel tycoon turned New Jersey Nets owner announced his sudden entry into national politics, he had rolled out a series of these publicity stunts, and like the others, this one had drawn a rarefied crowd. Millionaires and celebrities filled the stands, and on court, dressed in matching red-and-white jerseys and shorts, a who's-who of Moscow's political elite practiced their clumsy layups at Prokhorov's side. The Kremlin was well represented.

On Prokhorov's team, the coach was none other than Sergei Ivanov, deputy and close personal friend to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose presence made the event's message clear: Prokhorov's relations with the government are doing just fine. Being an oligarch can be a tricky business in today's Russia -- take Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the last billionaire who tried to go into Russian opposition politics, in 2004; he now languishes in a jail cell. This time, the rich guy had the Kremlin's blessing.

The Putin-era Kremlin has a long tradition of supporting "constructive opposition" parties which give the appearance of real dissent while, mostly, supporting the policies of the ruling United Russia party. With Prokhorov's name recognition and the tacit endorsement of the powers-that-be, Right Cause was likely to cross the 7 percent threshold needed to win seats in the State Duma.

Right Cause was formed in 2008 but was a political nonentity until Prokhorov was elected as its head in June. The charismatic tycoon promised to take on United Russia's "political monopoly," but had been careful to steer clear of explicit criticism of Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev.

Throughout the summer, this message was hammered into the public's mind so effectively -- through Prokhorov's participation in national TV debates, through photo-ops with the country's leading men, through speeches and endorsements -- that his apparent sudden fall from grace this week has shocked the political scene. On Thursday, Sept. 15, he was officially deposed as leader of Right Cause, which he had headed for all of three months.

The local pundits were beside themselves. It was as though the Kremlin's newest horse, so carefully groomed for December's parliamentary elections, had suddenly been sent to the butcher. Worst of all, the horse had started kicking back.

On Thursday night, sounding exhausted from the day's upheaval, Prokhorov gave a radio interview during which he started naming names. The Kremlin "puppet master" behind his removal, he said, was Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the presidential administration. That came as little surprise. Surkov has long been seen as the chief choreographer of domestic Russian politics, the man who holds regular meetings with "opposition" party chiefs and TV newsmen to set their respective agendas. So if anyone was directing the action from back stage it would be him. But never before had the curtain been pulled back so abruptly by one of the leading actors. "I felt it all on my own hide," Prokhorov told the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station that night. "I have a great deal of proof of how various steps were choreographed to interfere in the work of political parties."

The proof was already fairly apparent in the way that the scandal unfolded. On Wednesday, Prokhorov's party held the opening day of its annual summit, starting off with a series of preliminary discussions without Prokhorov in attendance. But within hours, the summit took an unplanned turn. A group of party members began voting on the main orders of business, including who would represent the party in the upcoming elections. Dozens of Prokhorov's supporters were kept from entering the hall, and leading the action inside was Andrei Bogdanov, one of the Kremlin's favored political hit men. In 2005, he had pulled almost the same trick on another opposition party, banning its leaders, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, from entering the hall and then voting them out of power in favor of lesser known, less formidable figures from the party ranks.  

Prokhorov was furious. He assembled a news conference that evening to complain that his usurpers were using forged party documents and packing the hall with "impostors." He also signed a decree revoking their membership. It did little good. The following day, Bogdanov and other party members held the second day of their summit accross town at Moscow's World Trade Center -- a massive convention hall. It felt a bit like a secret gathering of the Five Families and about as easy to attend.

On Thursday, I went in search of Bogdanov at the World Trade Center. At the end of several long corridors that smelled of sour cabbage soup, a security guard asked me where I was going, looked me up and down, and then sent me down yet another identical corridor to repeat the process with a different security guard.

Finally, in the nether regions of the building, I came to a small, hastily outfitted auditorium that was crammed with men in shiny suits. Most turned out to be Right Cause members from Russia's poorer provinces. In a quick series of unanimous votes, they removed Prokhorov from the party leadership, approved a list of candidates for the elections, and chose a new acting chairman, into whose ear Bogdanov would periodically whisper as the voting progressed.

None of the delegates seemed to hold any illusions about what had happened. "What's the point of hiding it?" asked Blyagoz Arambiy, a mustachioed delegate from the tobacco- and sheep-breeding region of Adygea. "[Prokhorov's leadership of the party] was a project agreed with the Kremlin, and you can't just go around breaking agreements and behaving any old way you like," Arambiy told me.

What remains a mystery is what exactly Prokhorov did that so provoked the Kremlin's wrath. At first, the dispute looked so preposterous that pundits assumed it was another stunt, a way to show that Prokhorov was actually an independent candidate and not a Kremlin project. But the scandal now seems to have gone too far for that to be the case. On Thursday, Prokhorov announced that he was pulling out of the elections, and on state television no less, whose political signals Surkov tightly controls. The broadcasts have already switched from calling him a "candidate" and a "party leader" to a "billionaire" and an "oligarch." (Prokhorov's claims that Surkov and the Kremlin interfered in the political process have, of course, not been aired on state TV.)

But Prokhorov is still gearing up for a fight. His $18 billion fortune probably won't hurt his cause, and now -- after his summer in politics -- he also has the public's ear. His plan in the coming weeks, he says, is to secure a meeting with the country's two leaders, Putin and Medvedev, to demand that they fire Surkov. But this close to the December elections, they will probably refuse. You don't fire the choreographer just before opening night.

More likely, Prokhorov will become Russia's wealthiest political gadfly, and like the rest, he will be barred from television, barred from politics, and left shouting his case from offstage. The show will go on without him.