Argument

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.

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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