Back to School

Egyptian and Tunisian classrooms learn to learn in a post-dictator era.

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."

But now, Kheriji says, "We want the truth." Thanks to the work at the national pedagogical institute, all the sycophantic passages championing Ben Ali have been removed. Material covering the 2011 revolution is under discussion, though it has yet to be added. Ennahda would like to see a new curriculum and other reforms emerge out of "a national consultation on the education needs of country," as Kheriji puts it, which he says would include parents and civic groups. "Everyone agrees the quality of education has come down under Ben Ali and that we need to reform the system. We need to look at what kind of young people we want to produce."

Indeed, cutting out the chapters that flattered former dictators seems to be the easiest of the education reforms needed in Egypt and Tunisia. The characterizations of the Mubarak era are a "secondary, marginal" matter, says Shaaban Abdel Aleem, who heads the education committee in Egypt's newly elected parliament. Increasing the Education Ministry's budget and improving the quality of education overall are much more important, he says.

The Egyptian school system is a "dinosaur," as Abu Serie puts it. Like all Egypt's public services, it has been swamped by the country's demographic explosion and has been left further adrift by an unresponsive bureaucracy. The system now includes 16 million kids, 1.2 million teachers, and 45,000 schools, Abu Serie told me. Eighty-five percent of the Education Ministry's $6.6 billion budget goes to salaries, and even so the average teacher makes less than $200 a month, he says. Schools take in students in double shifts and hold classes with up to 70 students. Teachers make ends meet by giving private lessons, geared to the all-determining final examination; studies estimate that Egyptian families spend $2.4 billion a year on tutoring -- one-third of household spending on education.

And in both Egypt and Tunisia -- as in much of the Arab world -- teaching methods are antiquated and authoritarian. "The educational system is not based on discussion between teacher and students, but on students repeating and learning by heart," Kheriji explains. "There is no encouragement of analysis, debate.… This was avoided because it would develop people who would think for themselves and articulate their own views." Or as the education platform of one Islamist party in Egypt puts it, students are treated as "cargo containers transporting information all year long and unloading it onto exam papers at the end of the year."

These shortcomings extend all the way up to national universities, which are also overcrowded, underfunded, and poorly managed, producing hundreds of thousands of unemployed graduates whose frustrations helped fuel last year's uprisings. In fact, 40 percent of Egypt's unemployed hold a university degree or higher.

Institutions of higher learning have also been plagued for decades by political interference. While the secret police and members of Ben Ali's former ruling party were quickly ejected from Tunisian campuses after last year's revolution, in Egypt attempts to assert academic independence -- like most reform efforts so far in the country's contested transition -- have stalled. These attempts have in turn consumed an inordinate amount of students' and professors' energy, leaving them little time to focus on administrative and academic reforms.

Now it may be up to the Islamist parties that have swept to power in both Tunisia and Egypt to try to solve their countries' educational problems. But their liberal and secular critics worry that they will use schools to spread their own version of morality instead.

In Tunisia, in part to allay such concerns, the moderate Ennahda refrained from pursing the education minister's position. (The seat went to an independent nominated by a left-leaning party.) The party knew "there would have been a lot of opposition and accusations that we want to re-engineer education and instill our vision on the country," Kheriji explains. Ennahda supports Arabic-language instruction and believes Islam is a fundamental part of Tunisian identity, but, he says, "We don't want education to be a polarizing field. We want there to be a consensus."

Nonetheless, the country has already witnessed clashes on university campuses, with fundamentalist students and their supporters demonstrating for the right of female students to wear the niqab, disrupting classes, and reportedly intimidating professors and administrators for un-Islamic behavior or teachings. Secular-leaning Tunisians have organized counterprotests.

In Egypt, Islamist parties -- considerably more conservative than those in Tunisia -- have shown much less reticence. Aleem, the head of the education committee in the Egyptian parliament, is a member of the Nour Party, a new and very conservative Islamist party that won about a quarter of parliament's seats and that -- along with the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party -- forms an Islamist supermajority. The Nour Party has already voiced its interest in running the Education Ministry. But some liberals are concerned by the suggestion, in the party's platform, that Egyptian authorities should "revise the curriculum so that it suits and supports the morals and values of Egyptian society, and remove all that contradicts true Islam." The platform calls for establishing separate, extra classes for girls -- what it calls an "additional high-quality educational program that is appropriate for her nature and role and the duty that God has set her" -- as well as for keeping "women's special nature in mind when devising curricula and teaching methods, and acknowledg[ing] that what suits men does not always suit women."

Liberal Egyptian newspapers allege that Islamists intend to mandate the headscarf for schoolgirls and segregate classes -- a charge Aleem denies. "We haven't talked about any of these things," he says. The committee, he notes, is holding hearings with educational experts and planning trips to Turkey and Malaysia -- two often invoked models of Islamist success -- to study their education systems. And when a Nour member recently criticized early English-language classes in Egyptian schools -- calling them a plan to make "our children … culturally Westernized" -- the party condemned his remarks. "English is a necessary skill," Aleem says. "We want to teach many languages."

He insists that the Nour Party's top priority, shared by Islamists and more secular Egyptians alike, is to move Egypt's ailing education system forward -- not to get caught up in fights along the way, whether about foreign languages or Mubarak's legacy. "We're concerned with the big issues," he promises.


Democracy Lab

The Stubborn Past

Thirty-five years after the "Dirty War," a trial in Argentina is still struggling to shed light on a bloody legacy.

A few months ago I watched, from the twentieth row of a university auditorium, as Pablo del Río, a soft-spoken man in his early thirties with an ill-kept beard, gave testimony to a panel of judges. In a halting voice, his eyes fixed on the floor, he described events early on the morning of August 17, 1976, when his father was beaten and kidnapped by a group of plainclothes thugs acting on behalf of Argentina's military dictatorship. The next night the elder del Río was shot dead as he lay in his hospital bed. His offense: membership in a leftist political group.

The younger del Río clearly found it excruciating to testify in public about his father's murder. From time to time his swivel chair creaked as he turned to face the elderly defendants seated in the two front rows:

"You don't kill people," he told them, his voice trembling with rage. "You just don't kill people."

Del Río could just as easily have been addressing the broader public beyond the courtroom. Today, 35 years after the fall of the most brutal dictatorship in the country's history, Argentina is still grappling with the legacy of violence it left behind. In the provincial Argentine university city of Bahía Blanca, 17 former soldiers and police officers are standing trial on more than a hundred counts of murder, kidnapping, and torture. But the proceedings have much broader implications than a conventional criminal case. The white-haired men in the dock stand for the members of an implied community -- families, friends, and neighbors -- who have never really acknowledged their links to the horrors of that era. The trial, which has already lasted for almost a year, is due to end next month.

Located seven hours south of Buenos Aires by car and nestled between the South Atlantic coast and the dry plains of Patagonia, Bahía Blanca offers a fitting microcosm of Argentina's divided soul. It is a medium-sized, affluent city that includes both bastions of progressive politics and a sizable contingent of staunch conservatives. It is home to a prestigious and politically liberal university, the Universidad Nacional del Sur (UNS). But it also has a significant military presence and hosts the largest naval base in Argentina. Its main newspaper, La Nueva Provincia, is one of the most conservative in the country.

In what later came to be known as the "Dirty War," the military junta that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983 sent as many as 30,000 political protesters, students, and labor activists to their deaths in clandestine detention centers. Though armed leftist groups did mount a challenge to the government at first, soon the only enemies of the state that remained were young men and women, often guilty of little more than attending the wrong rally or owning the wrong book. Nearly 5,000 people died in Argentina's largest clandestine detention center, the Navy Mechanical School in Buenos Aires (commonly known as "La Escuela," or "the School"). In Bahía Blanca, the local army unit set up its own perversely named torture center, "La Escuelita" ("the Little School"), in an abandoned building just beyond the city limits. (Last month, Alicia Partnoy, one of the survivors of La Escuelita, testified at the Bahia Blanca trial, repeating an account she has also described in a remarkable memoir of her experiences.) Even today, signs of those years of terror are hidden in plain sight around the city -- like a small plaque in the university hallway commemorating the spot where two uniformed men shot a student dead after he was caught passing out political leaflets. The bullet holes have been plastered over, but the ensuing decades have failed to heal the country's wounds. (The photo above shows María Graciela Izurieta, who disappeared in Bahía Blanca in 1976 and has never been seen again.)

But why bring up the past now? The answer, as one might expect, involves both politics and the persistence of demands for a proper reckoning. After democracy was restored in 1983, the government of President Raúl Alfonsín tried only the top members of the previous military regime for crimes against humanity, giving amnesty to the rest. When President Carlos Menem came to power in 1989, however, he adopted a policy of "forgive and forget." He pardoned all former officials (and the much smaller number of anti-government guerillas still around) and freed those serving prison sentences.

It was only in 2003 with the appearance on the scene of President Nestor Kirchner, who lost many friends in the "dirty war," that cases were re-opened against all ranks of the military. His widow and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has continued his policy of confronting the legacy of the military junta. Last year, when the current human rights trial finally opened in Bahía Blanca, it ended a long period of reticence about this dark chapter in the city's past. The trial is just one of 13 others currently under way around Argentina.

We often use the expression "to bury the past," but Argentina's experience suggests that this is much harder than it looks. Take, for example, the persistently recurring issue of the fate of the children who lost their parents in the state-sponsored violence. Some of the "disappeared" were young pregnant mothers who were kidnapped, detained until they gave birth, and then killed. Their babies were given up for adoption, in some cases to childless military families. Since DNA testing became widely available in the 1990s, the national victims groups H.I.J.O.S. and the Nobel-prize-winning Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo have linked various desaparecido children to their biological families. In at least one now-notorious case, a young woman discovered that the man she thought was her father was actually the officer who had tortured and killed her parents.

In some instances, these cases have grabbed national headlines, as when two young heirs to the Clarín media group fortune were suspected of being the biological children of desaparecidos. It's an issue that also haunts the tribunal in Bahía Blanca. Last November, 36-year old Adriana Metz took the stand to tell about the morning in December 1976, when government agents kidnapped her pregnant mother, Graciela Romero. Metz and her family have reason to believe that Romero subsequently gave birth to a boy during Romero's imprisonment in the La Escuelita prison, and has asked that government archives be opened so that they can learn the truth. When prosecutor Córdoba asked her what it meant to her to discover that she had a brother, she paused for a full minute before answering: "It meant that I don't have my mother anymore. That I don't have my father. And, now, that I don't have my brother."

Not everyone in Bahía Blanca, however, wants to listen. Argentines exult in their own garrulousness, so the silence I encountered whenever I broached the subject of the tribunal was all the more striking. One pleasant summer afternoon, I chatted poolside with a neighbor, a local landlord named Vicente. An amiable man with a sharp laugh and a round belly upon which he rested discarded peanut shells, his mood darkened when I mentioned the trial. "‘Human rights' is a business enterprise, nothing more," he said, explaining his view that the proceedings were just a political ploy to drum up financial and popular support for the president. He became irate when I asked whether the victims of the former military regime deserved justice: "There was fighting on both sides," he told me. "We shouldn't be crying about human rights, we should be thanking those generals that we're not like Cuba, that there's no Berlin Wall in Buenos Aires!"

The Cold War-era language of a "communist threat" that Vicente employed is still commonplace in the more conservative communities in Bahía Blanca. It finds its most regular expression in the editorial pages of La Nueva Provincia, which has repeatedly invoked Argentina's good fortune in "winning the war against the subversives."

Supporters of the tribunal argue that it is precisely this continuing undercurrent of support for the policies of the old regime that dictates the need for a public criminal proceeding. Graciela Cortazar, a lawyer in Bahía Blanca and a law professor at the university, articulated the need for a trial as a way of setting the record straight in the community. Referring to the local newspaper and its well-known sympathies for the military, Graciela told me: "La Nueva's level of denial about what happened is close to that of the Nazis in Germany. If we don't try these men in a legitimate court of justice, I fear what that paper and its loyal readers will be able to claim."

When I asked Walter Larrea, a prosecutor in the trial, about the skepticism that many people in the community felt towards the proceedings, he let out a dry laugh. "This city is one big bag of guilt," he said.

He told me that he sees the trial both as a means for making the perpetrators answer for their actions as well as a vital step toward confronting the city with its own complicity. Whether it was a neighbor who witnessed a kidnapping and then went back to bed, or a police officer who described a cold-blooded act of murder as an "altercation" in his report, Larrea explained, it took many cogs to make the military regime's mechanism of terror run smoothly. "There's a collective sense of shame that they do not want to confront," Larrea told me. "Now we are going to face it. Argentines have to learn that we can no longer hide from our past."

The trial in Bahía Blanca is complicated by the fact that it has two competing goals. It seeks to punish the individuals involved while at the same time shedding light on a period that has been cloaked in darkness for over three decades. It should come as little surprise that there is considerable debate about whether a formal legal proceeding can encompass the full scope of past crimes against humanity. "Sometimes we have to look for ‘absolute truth' instead of ‘absolute justice,'" chief prosecutor Abel Córdoba told me. "What might not cut it as legal proof still gets into the history books."

Yet Córdoba has hardly been shy about invoking his prosecutorial powers. Last year, testimony from one victim, a former leftist parliamentarian named Mario Edgardo Medina, implicated a long-time law professor at the university. Medina, who described how he was taken away in the trunk of a car after being abducted from his Bahía Blanca home in 1976, recalled that the future professor, Hugo Sierra, had sat by and taken notes during his subsequent interrogation. Medina was then dispatched to La Escuelita. He emerged from detention only four years later.

Following Medina's testimony, the federal tribunal ordered Sierra's immediate arrest, and hours later the grey-haired law professor was taken into custody. Though his arrest was highly publicized, Sierra was released the next day on insufficient evidence. Still, the allegations have made him a pariah in many quarters. The court's decision to arrest Sierra represented an aggressive interpretation of its mandate. Unlike the defendants, the professor never served in the military or the police force. Even if he acted as a tool of terror during the Dirty War, how could he be implicated in this particular trial? It remains unclear whether Córdoba genuinely expected to prosecute Sierra or merely intended to make a public statement about his role that would then become part of the historical record.

As the arrest of Sierra clearly shows, the prosecutors are looking far beyond the former military officers and policemen directly accused in the trial. Larrea's emphasis on a "collective sense of shame" is echoed in the courtroom nearly every day. The victims' testimonies rarely involve the men in the dock, and the prosecutors frequently ask the witnesses how other people -- priests, neighbors, colleagues, or even journalists at La Nueva Provincia -- might have contributed to their ordeals. After the trial ends next month, the prosecutor intends to launch a similar case this summer against the local navy unit, in part for its involvement in the infamous "Death Flights" of that era.

And that, in turn, raises another fundamental question about criminal investigations like Argentina's: How far should the circle of culpability extend? It seems obvious that everyone should condemn the soldier who pushed a pregnant woman, drugged but alive, out of an airplane -- but what about the air-traffic controller who guided the plane to its destination and back? It was the military regime that carried out the policies at the heart of the Dirty War, but those policies would have been impossible without the complicity of broad swathes of society.

Argentina's recent experience vividly demonstrates that countries emerging from authoritarian rule cannot expect quick or easy fixes to the problems of transitional justice. How can a country expect to bury its past when so many of its vanished victims never had graves? Katherine Sikkink, a leading scholar on transitional justice, argues that criminal trials can be inherently healing even when they don't reach a clear verdict. But based on my own experience of the tribunal in Bahía Blanca, I suspect that many of the victims of the Dirty War won't be satisfied merely by an act of public catharsis. Many of them say they want to see the killers of their loved ones punished with the full force of the law.

The undeniable need for this trial in Bahía Blanca, half a lifetime after the events it scrutinizes, suggests that other countries emerging from authoritarian rule will have little choice but to confront the horrors of the past. They must initiate this painful process even without the promise of closure. Even the best-dressed wound still leaves a scar.