After Two Revolts, Egypt’s Energetic Youth Deserve a Better Education

This article first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education and appears here under an agreement with The Chronicle and with the permission of the author.

Under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt stagnated for three decades. The country stood still as other nations developed and the world changed for the better. Economic opportunities dried up, and job opportunities continue to be scarce, particularly for the 21.3 million young Egyptians. The unemployment rate rose to 12.6 percent in 2012, with the unemployment rate for young people ages 15 to 29 hitting a record high of 77.5 percent. What’s more, those lucky enough to be employed by the government were in positions that neither fit their expertise nor required any work. The offered jobs were a way, for those who have connections, to receive a government salary.

Under Mubarak, education and the pursuit of science and technology also stagnated. Budgets for higher education were barely sufficient to keep faculty above the poverty line. According to the World Bank, spending on scientific research in 2009 added up to only 0.21 percent of GDP, far less than that of the United States (2.9 percent). The meager allocations in Egypt were just enough to pay for salaries, leaving little to support actual research projects or equipment. Faculty of higher-education institutions were further confronted by the low quality of high-school graduates. In reality, elementary and secondary education suffered more than higher-education because of meager resources, school overcrowding, lack of teacher training, and low quality of books and other teaching aids.

The young people of Egypt recognized these pitfalls before any other segment of the society. The advent of the Internet made it possible for them to see what was happening worldwide. They learned of the economic and social progress of countries as large as China and India or as small as Malaysia and Rwanda. They started interacting through social media; rather than bemoaning conditions in their country, they began to actively demand change.

The peaceful, but determined, revolution of January 25, 2011, and its companion, the tamarod (Arabic for rebellion) movement of June 30, 2013, grew from this frustration. Beyond the basic goal of democratic governance, the young people of Egypt demand enlightened leadership. Throughout their demonstrations, making education better aligned with the job market was a consistent call.

Their basic objective is to improve the economy and raise the standard of living, particularly among Egypt’s poor. Another demand is for improving health services and the education system, with an emphasis on higher education—the key requirement for job attainment and social mobility. Thus, as stability returns to Egypt there is no question that higher education should be among the areas that receive serious attention.

During the past year, under the rule of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the signs became progressively darker than even under the years of Mubarak. Ministers of education and higher education as well as presidents of universities were sacked en masse. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters were appointed in their places by presidential decree without due attention to qualifications. Some of them began to opine that no science topics should be discussed or researched if they are considered by them to be against Islam or the Islamic law of Sharia. The infusion of religious perceptions as barriers to intellectual freedom shook the research community to its roots.Many scholars considered Morsi’s efforts to be tramping on internationally accepted academic norms.

Furthermore, the Morsi government showed a clear bias against women–a stand that was contrary to the way things were in Egypt. Egyptian women have always been accorded equal rights and respected as professional scientists and engineers. Four of my undergraduate classmates at Ain Shams University’s department of geology were women who attained leadership positions in the field. When I left Egypt to come to the United States for graduate study in 1960, the chairperson of Alexandria University’s geology department was a woman.

The misperceived religious notion of keeping women apart and underrepresented resulted in large numbers of females in the tamarod movement. The Muslim Brotherhood neglected the fact that freedom of expression must include equality between men and women along with freedom of inquiry in the sciences and the arts. Higher-education institutions are the guardians of these truths, and must be allowed free inquiry and discourse. Assuring such freedom at higher-education institutions in Egypt would increase the potential for participation in global developments in science and technology.

Whenever young Egyptians are accorded the opportunity to compete, they do so with determination and a fair degree of success. I had the opportunity to judge competitions of the pan-Arab Unesco Science Awards and the Stars of Science program of the Qatar Foundation. Year after year, Egyptian competitors showed initiative, sportsmanship, and enlightened spirit. They were often among the winners. Given the opportunity through proper education and training, they can play a part in the increase of knowledge for the benefit of humanity.

The young people of Egypt represent an enormous force for good if properly educated and trained in an open-minded and technically advanced system. They were able to rally the majority of its citizens to topple two inept governments within two and a half years. If allowed to participate and innovate, these young people can lift up their country in a decade or two. They have the energy and the dedication to do the job, as their ancestors have repeatedly done throughout Egypt’s 5,000 years of amazing history.

Farouk El-Baz, born in the Nile Delta, is director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University.

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