Reading Mahfouz in Cairo
The future of education in North Africa
In late January the Egyptian Creativity Front marched on Cairo in an attempt to pressure Egypt’s new parliament to respect the freedom of expression. Over the last couple of months, there have been rising concerns amongst artists and intellectuals over the future of public thought in Egypt. Their concerns are rooted in the fact that a number of members of the new Parliament view certain forms of expression as offensive. Though the majority Freedom and Justice party—the political representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood—have long espoused their moderate characteristics, members within this group recently condemned the works of the Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
Though these statements may come from a minority within the party, many Egyptians, and indeed their Tunisian neighbors, are concerned that the increasing influence of religion in the political system may have negative implications for freedoms of expression and public thought.
The inefficiencies of the education systems in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region have serious implications.The condemnation of the works of Mahfouz, however, is even more disturbing because of the issues it highlights concerning education in both Egypt and Tunisia. While the relationship between intellectual freedoms and education may not be obvious, it is important to keep in mind the role that free speech plays in supporting an education system that encourages critical thinking.
Unfortunately for Egypt and Tunisia, critical thinking has never been a skill that their respective education systems have been equipped to teach. Rather, like many countries in the Middle East, Tunisia and Egypt have suffered a crisis in education for the last three decades—one of the characteristics of which has been the creation of a system that develops students capable of memorization but leaves them unprepared for tasks related to problem solving. Though not an explicit demand amongst protestors that brought about the revolutions in these two countries, in reality many of their grievances were directly related to these kinds of inefficiencies in public education.
Indeed, the education systems of these two countries are weakened by a number of contradictions. The most obvious of these has been the inefficient way in which the governments of Egypt and Tunisia have encouraged the development of this sector.
Astonishingly, both countries have invested heavily in education, committing over 5 percent of their GDPs to the sector. They also have compulsory basic education, and have nearly achieved their goal of universal primary education with 94 percent enrollment.
Yet, in spite of these investments, educational provision has been uneven. Students in rural areas have significantly less access to education than those in urban areas, resulting in high primary drop-out rates in rural children, and especially amongst girls.
Moreover, in their attempt to widen access to education, quality has been sacrificed for quantity. In order to accommodate the growing number of students, in Tunisia “primary schools operate a double flow system, with students attending half-day sessions in the mornings or afternoons. Hence time spent learning is shorter than in other countries,” according to a report by the African Development Bank.
The inefficiencies of the education systems in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region have serious implications. Inadequate education and alternative training opportunities result in graduates with skills that are not in demand in labour markets. Once the infamous youth unemployment rates of the region are observed through this lens, it becomes easier to understand why such a high proportion of university graduates in the region are unemployed. In Morocco for instance, 61 percent of young people with secondary education or above are unemployed compared with 8 percent of uneducated youth, while in Tunisia 40 percent of university-educated youth are unemployed compared to 24 percent of non-graduates.
As a result of the impact on the economic opportunities of individuals that a poor education system has, it is no wonder that throughout the region, but especially in Egypt and Tunisia, the inefficiencies of the education system are seen as an impediment to development.
Now that both of these countries have had the opportunity to voice their political preferences and elected governments are slowly being put in place, Egyptians and Tunisians across the political spectrum expect tangible results with regards to economic development, and especially unemployment. Given the role that an inadequate education system played in creating, or at the least exacerbating, the economic challenges of these countries, it would be only natural for newly elected officials to tackle the inefficacies in the education sector.
However, as has been illustrated by the encouragement of censorship by members of Egypt’s new politicians, it is unclear whether the religious values of some of the country’s new officials will stand in the way of education reform. The insistence of Islamist parties on their support for economic development should lead them to rethink any policies that might stand in the way of strengthening the system of education. This will inevitably involve teaching material that their conservative mores may not support, but the authorities must learn to differentiate between exposing students to a variety of subjects and forcing students to agree with every idea they are taught in school.