CAIRO, Egypt — Across North Africa, countries attempting the fraught transition from dictatorship to a new, freer form of governance are having to address the legacy of deposed regimes and the aspirations of impatient citizens. One of their most pressing challenges: reforming education systems long hobbled by lack of freedom, funds, and vision.
Libya, where the musings of Muammar al-Qaddafi's political treatise known as the "Green Book" formed the core of the curriculum for decades, is in the midst of an across-the-board educational overhaul. But in Egypt and Tunisia, where dictators Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali did not subsume the state and society under themselves as Qaddafi did -- and where their ouster has not left the same tabula rasa -- revisions have so far been much less radical. In both countries, education reform is waiting on ongoing political transitions and is further complicated by underfunded and overcrowded school systems, as well as the rise of Islamist parties viewed with suspicion by secular forces.
Although the former Egyptian president and first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, affixed their names to hundreds of schools and other public buildings across the country, they didn't dominate the curriculum in the same idiosyncratic way that Qaddafi did in Libya. As a result, the new Egyptian Education Ministry has revised only one book since the revolution: the sixth-grade social studies textbook, which, needless to say, presented Mubarak's three decades in office in a flattering light, overestimating his role in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and commending his political reforms. This book was "the only bit, in all the grades and subjects" that dealt directly with Mubarak, according to Reda Abu Serie, Egypt's deputy education minister.
Still, the revisions, made by a committee of well-known historians chosen by the new Education Ministry, were not without controversy. The new version of the text, issued this year, returned Egypt's first president -- Muhammad Naguib, who governed from 1952 to 1954, before the charismatic pan-Arab icon Gamal Abdel Nasser took over and put him under house arrest -- from the historical limbo where he had languished for decades. The new text also includes a section on last year's Jan. 25 revolution. Although the book chronicles Mubarak's achievements in developing Egypt's infrastructure and fighting terrorism, pointing to landmark national projects like the Cairo Metro and the Alexandria library, it concludes that "these attempts [at development] were not sufficient to satisfy the aspirations of the nation and the needs of the citizens, which led in the end to the people carrying out the January 25 revolution against the regime."
The suggestion that Mubarak, despite his best efforts, couldn't quite meet the country's expectations, did not sit well with Egypt's newly elected (and vociferous) parliamentarians, who demanded a further revision. The resulting books -- which the ministry provided to me, though they will not be issued until the 2012-2013 school year -- will be arranged around historical events rather than presidential eras. This sounds like a sensible step away from the personalization of power, but as a result, Mubarak's 30-year rule will be entirely elided. Students will move from the 1973 war to the 2011 revolution with nary a mention of who ran the county in the intervening three decades, suggesting Egyptians' discomfort with addressing Mubarak's legacy.
A new chapter on the Jan. 25 revolution also treads lightly. It mentions "the violations, mistakes, administrative corruption that spread throughout society," as well as the "appearance of a class of businessmen who accumulated their wealth at the expense of the Egyptian people" and "the negative foreign policy stances of Egypt" as causes for the uprising -- with no mention of Mubarak by name. One exercise asks students to write a letter to the mother of a revolutionary martyr. But the darker side of last year's events and the controversies during the transition period since -- including the fact that no one has been convicted of the murders of more than 800 of those very same martyrs -- are not discussed. Abu Serie notes that the historians who authored the revised book resisted writing about the revolution at all "because it is ongoing"; indeed, the 14 months since Mubarak's ouster have seen endless battles over Egypt's post-revolutionary narrative.
In Tunisia, meanwhile, President Ben Ali and first lady Leila Trabelsi dominated the civic education curriculum, their pictures and activities as ubiquitous in the textbooks as they had become in the Tunisian media and streets. Students were asked to study Ben Ali's speeches and write essays about the significance of Nov. 7, the date Ben Ali seized power in 1987. Moadh Kheriji remembers his classes as a teenager under Ben Ali as dedicated to "the brilliance of the regime, how democratic it was." Earlier textbooks had celebrated Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, says Kheriji, a spokesman for the once banned and today ascendant Islamist party Ennahda. "Then he was replaced by Ben Ali, who became the savior of the country, the leader."