Education

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    Education and Democracy
    Participation Is the Key

    A specific population’s level of education is considered an indication of how likely an authoritarian regime is to develop towards democracy. At the same time, a country’s education policy also reflects its political situation. How can states that have problems with their education systems still make democratic changes, and how can foreign institutions such as the Goethe-Institut provide assistance?

    The reciprocal dependence of the educational level of a country’s population and the political form of its government can be illustrated first on a theoretical level. Political science tells us that a democracy presupposes a liberal, democratic constitutional order that is the result of a democratic process of opinion formation and the expression of the political will of the people. In concrete terms, this means that before a democratic regime is established, a population works through a process in the course of which the majority of the people agree on this political order.

    Shaping the political will of the people

    This is where the education level of a population plays a decisive role. In order to be able to participate actively in this process and to shape this process by moving it towards democratic structures, it is essential that citizens are politically mature, familiar with participatory structures, know how to use them, and also respect the key characteristics of democratic co-existence (e.g. the establishment of a liberal and pluralistic order, and solidarity in the personal behaviour of the individual).

    The necessary skills for taking part in this process of expressing the will of the people can be taught in the public education system. After all, schools and universities are not just places where academic knowledge is imparted but also places where values are passed on and opinions are influenced. However, these values and opinions do not necessarily foster democracy: the orientation of their content is shaped by the respective government. This leads to the observation that the education policy of a state can serve as a mirror for the overall political project.

    This is why it is most interesting to observe reforms in education policy and development trends – in particular in countries that are going through socio-political upheaval – and from them to draw conclusions as to the ideological orientation of the state that is in the process of being rebuilt. All of this is true for Egypt and Tunisia - two countries that were not only affected by the Arab Spring, but are also particularly relevant examples of the course of a post-authoritarian transformation in the region of North Africa and the Middle East.

    Education and political upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia

    The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia – as well as those in other countries in the region of North Africa and the Middle East, where massive popular uprisings have led to lasting political and social changes since 2011 – were mainly instigated by people under thirty. For one, this age group is the largest in the populations of these countries (about 60% of the Egyptian and about 55% of the Tunisian population). Secondly, it has been hit by crippling mass unemployment: 70.8% of the 13.4% of the population who were out of work in the third quarter of 2013 were under thirty years of age (according to CAPMAS, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics). What is also striking is the fact that the majority of these young, unemployed adults have a higher academic qualification. This also explains why the education reforms implemented during the transformation phase in these countries play such a major role. Because a large part of the Egyptian and Tunisian population and various political parties have been pushing for a swift implementation of these reforms since the overthrow of the authoritarian presidents, they have also become an indicator of the efficiency of governments in the post-revolutionary phase.

    The Education Scout project

    In order to be able to observe developments in the field of education during the transformation phase in Egypt and Tunisia as soon as possible after they occur and be able to react accordingly, the Goethe-Institut in Cairo launched the Education Scout project. This project – like other transformation projects – was implemented on the basis of the Transformation Partnerships concluded by Germany and Egypt and by Germany and Tunisia in 2011, and was funded by the Federal Foreign Office.

    The activities of the Education Scout project are very diverse. Since the beginning of the project in June 2012, structures have been put in place that allow changes in the Egyptian and Tunisian education systems to be observed soon after they are implemented, information about these changes to be made available to German and local partners in the field of education cooperation, and conclusions to be drawn for new projects in the field of education cooperation.

    The fact that the activities of the Education Scout project are taking place in countries that are in the middle of a period of social and political upheaval, that they are worthwhile, and that they lead to the improved adaptation of the education projects to the needs of the population is illustrated very clearly by the course of the Egyptian transformation phase and the resulting consequences for German-Egyptian education cooperation.

    The Islamisation of education?

    The transformation phase in Egypt thus far can be divided into two phases. The first phase corresponds to the time in office of the ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, i.e. from 30th June 2012 to 3rd July 2013. The second phase began directly after the first and is characterised by the rule of the transition government.

    Both governments began their terms in office by announcing their intention to focus intensively on reforms in the education sector. During the presidency of Mohammed Morsi, the term ‘Nahda’ was used in this context. This word can be translated as ‘upswing’ or ‘development’, or even as ‘renaissance’ or ‘awakening’. Use of the latter two translations led opponents of Mohammed Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party to predict the Islamisation of the education system. Since the current transition government came to power, removing all traces of this supposed Islamisation has been the guideline for the new government’s changes to the Egyptian education system. So far, however, it has been observed that no national education strategy was either drafted or implemented, neither during the presidency of Mohammed Morsi nor since the current transition government started its work. In concrete terms, this means that in both cases reforms were sporadically formulated and partially implemented, but that these reforms did not eliminate the key problems facing the Egyptian education system.

    The first step undertaken by both administrations related to personnel. From Ministry of Education level right down to the level of university rectors and school head teachers, people were suspended from duty because of their political convictions and replaced by supporters of the ruling administration. In both cases, political allegiance played a much greater role than the expertise needed to do the job at hand. The reason given for these measures was that all traces of the previous government had to be removed. In the case of the Morsi administration, these changes were interpreted by its political opponents as preparation for an Islamisation of Egyptian society; in the case of the current transition government, the push to reverse measures implemented by the Morsi administration hid the fact that the transition government too was pursuing power-political interests, thereby securing the influence of the military in the education sector as well.

    The material situation of schools

    The problems faced by Egypt’s public schools are many and varied. The two biggest problems are overcrowding in urban areas (with up to 100 pupils in each class) and inadequate infrastructure in rural areas (which makes it difficult for children to travel to school). Other problems of a material nature include teachers’ salaries and insufficient equipment in schools.

    While Mohammed Morsi was in power there was no widespread construction of new school buildings. One possible explanation for this could be people’s lasting fear that the categorical construction of new institutes of education could lead to the Islamisation of the Egyptian school system. On the other hand, it may just have been down to the fact that the government did not have the necessary financial resources at its disposal. The latter reason would also seem to be a problem for the current transition government. That said, the transition government has indeed looked for pragmatic alternatives and convinced private investors to invest in the construction of new school buildings and new school media for the classroom. It is not possible to say whether these investments will be enough to increase the number of schools across the country and to improve the school infrastructure in the long term. There is no strategic plan for the implementation of this kind of initiative.

    The problem of teachers’ salaries

    While Mohammed Morsi was in office, attempts were also made to find ways of increasing teachers’ salaries. The aim was to increase the salaries of young teachers starting out in their careers, which had previously been about €60 per month, by 100%. This was only rolled out across the country as part of the setting of a general minimum salary for civil servants of about €120 per month in September 2013. However, teachers who do not have a permanent contracts – and that accounts for over 60% of young teachers starting out – are not covered by this. Instead, they have to make do with the new fixed minimum salary of €40 per month.

    In addition to the initiatives to improve material deficits in the public education sector, particular attention was also paid to the content of curricula. As already mentioned above, the way these changes are perceived is directly linked to the overall political conditions. During the presidency of Mohammed Morsi, the expectation was that this was precisely where the feared Islamisation of Egypt’s young people would begin. This also explains the huge pressure to reverse the relevant changes as soon as the current transition government came to power. All the more astonishing, therefore, is the fact that the actual changes made to the curricula since 2011 have thus far been minimal. There have been changes in the core subjects of history, social studies, and Arabic. However, these changes amounted to dropping certain chapters of Egyptian history (such as those relating to the presidency of Hosni Mubarak), introducing political personalities (as for example the biography of Hassan al-Banna) under Morsi, and replacing them under the mandate of the government that followed.

    Authoritarian school culture

    These content-related changes seem even less significant when one considers that the core of the education process – the methods for imparting knowledge and the associated relationship between teachers and pupils – was not changed. By neglecting structural reforms, an authoritarian school culture remains dominant to this day. This culture not only shapes the relationship between teachers and pupils, but also between teachers and head teachers and the entire Egyptian education system. This is a hierarchical system, where all power of decision is concentrated in the Ministry of Education. The structures within the ministry are pyramid-like. The only purpose of the various administrative levels of the Ministry of Education is to pass instructions from the Ministry down to the lower levels of the education system. No provision is made for participation in the formulation of the content of decisions. On the contrary, it is evident that the individual education levels adopt the authority demonstrated by the highest level of the hierarchy in their dealings with the next level down in the education system’s administrative pyramid. This mechanism is in evidence right down to the lowest level of educational policy, namely the classroom.

    As already mentioned at the outset, the driving force behind the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East was people under thirty. In Egypt, it was also evident that minors, most of whom went to publicly-funded schools, joined demonstrations and demanded more say in decision-making processes, freedom of speech and other democratic values. Such demands were also made of schools, and because of the fact that suitable structures do not exist, massive disputes broke out, not only between pupils, but also between pupils and teachers.

    Discussion and participation

    On the basis of this observation, the Education Scout project came up with the idea of showing these pupils ways of dealing with these differences of opinion verbally and constructively and, at the same time, increasing their participation at school. To this end, debating clubs were set up in school in November 2013. In one workshop, which was led by an expert from the Global Youth Debates project, participating pupils and teachers from public and private secondary schools discussed a variety of social issues. A set of specific rules had to be observed in the process, thereby teaching them how to tolerate opinions that differed from their own and to find solutions together. This project will continue this year. By training teaching staff to become multipliers, the aim is to allow teachers to set up projects independently in a variety of schools and increase the number of participating pupils and teachers. However, it will depend on the Egyptians themselves whether this initiative will lead to an improvement in relations between teachers and pupils and beyond that to a sustainable review of the structures in the Egyptian education system.
    Heike Thee reads Islamic Studies and Romance Language and Literature at Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg im Breisgau, and International Relations and Comparative Political Science at the Sorbonne University and the political institute Sciences Po in Paris. Since June 2012, she has been in charge of the ‘Education Scout’ transformation project at the Goethe-Institut in Cairo.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    June 2014

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