In Egypt, Bribes Help the Illiterate Pass Tests
This investigative report was supported by Arab Reports for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and first ran in Arabic by Elsaba7. It appears here after being translated and edited and with ARIJ and the reporter’s approval.
On Sep 10, 2015, at 10 a.m., dozens of youths got off microbuses at Kasr Al-Aini Street in central Cairo. A few minutes later, some of those youths gathered their master’s degree and doctoral diplomas and, as cameras recorded the moment, the youths set the certificates on fire in front of the cabinet gate.
They burned their diplomas to protest not being hired for government jobs. The protest came after the government hired people with less education than the protestors had for the positions they had long waited for. Some of those hired included illiterate people who could not read or write, although they had been given “literacy certificates” that allowed them to hold government jobs.
A widespread corrupt system exists for awarding fraudulent literacy certificates, an investigation by this journalist has found. Illiterate people get substitute exam-takers with more educational qualifications than they have to take the literacy exams using names and numbers from the national identification cards of the illiterate people. Those illiterates, who are registered with the Literacy and Adult Education Authority, then use their literacy certificates to get financial and employment privileges. Many literacy teachers and supervisors have done nothing to stop this practice, and indeed they also often benefit from it by taking bribes from the illiterate people seeking certificates.
Salman M., a resident of the Monufia Governorate in his thirties, is one of the 1,750,000 Egyptians who received literacy certificates from the General Authority for Adult Education in 2015. Salman obtained the certificate although he is still unable to read and write. He confirmed, in a documented interview, that he obtained the certificate after a mosque in his village of Kafr Al-Hema, near the center of Ashmoun, announced on the minaret’s loudspeakers that an exam would be held immediately for those who wanted to obtain literacy certificates.
Salman and some of the villagers went to the mosque to find a man carrying a shoulder bag. That man distributed the examination papers to the people who were to take the exam. Salman said that supervisor often just wrote the answers on the test-takers’ papers. Students were also allowed to circulate the answers among themselves, so that literate test-takers could write on the answer sheets of the illiterates. Others helped struggling test-takers by writing the letters needed to form the correct words. Weeks later, Salman received a literacy certificate signed by the minister of education. This journalist got a copy of that certificate.
Mahmoud R., an illiterate young man in his late thirties, went with his brother, who has a degree in agriculture, so the brother could take the literacy exam on his behalf. Mahmoud needed the certificate to get a driving license from the General Directorate of Traffic. Mahmoud’s brother took the exam for his brother and four other illiterate people who were with him at the same examination committee, which was attended by a female supervisor and another female employee. Three weeks later, Mahmoud found out that one of the four people his brother had helped had easily obtained his literacy certificate. Mahmoud was surprised because he was still waiting for his certificate, up until the time this report was published.
Salman and Mahmoud are not the only such people. There are thousands of people who have received or are trying to get literacy certificates illegally.
This report sampled three of Egypt’s 27 governorates, Monufia, Sharqia, and Qalyubia, and found that in all three, illiterate people are getting literacy certificates without learning how to read or write. This journalist conducted an exam in front of a camera for a sample of three of those who got their literacy certificates to find out if they could read and write. He asked them to write a single phrase: “Long Live the Arab Republic of Egypt.” Two people were able to write nothing but “Egypt,” while the third answer was full of mistakes “Lng Live Egpt Araba Republica”, which can be understood in Arabic as “Tha Misr audience wagon.” The spelling and sequence of each word were wrong.
This journalist also managed to interview one of the educated women who is hired to replace the illiterates registered in the Literacy Authority’s official governmental documents. (Legally, supervisors are required to check the identity of each examination candidate.) Therefore, test takers can pass the exam after they bribe the literacy class supervisor or teacher. Whoever is in charge gets 200 Egyptian pounds ($12) for each person who finishes his literacy class and gets an official document. The teachers also hope to get appointed at the Anti-illiteracy Agency, a government department related to the Cabinet (Council of Ministers), and get a fixed monthly salary rather than working from outside the agency for payment that does not exceed 70 Egyptian pounds ($4.50).
Magda Al-Sayyid, a girl in her twenties who holds a vocational education diploma said, “A female literacy school teacher asked me to attend the exam instead of my mother who is registered in her class and get paid 20 Egyptian pounds ($1.25). The examination committee had three supervisors. The female teacher distributed copies of the exam from the supervisor, who came from the authority’s branch in Qalyubia Governorate.”
The answer sheets then were distributed to the literate people. They were also given the photocopies of identity cards of illiterate women from other villages so they could write the names and national identity numbers of the women on the answer sheets. Then, the teacher gathered the sheets again. “On leaving, she gave each of us the amount we agreed on,” said Magda, in a recorded interview.
The Authority of Literacy and Adult Education Anti-illiteracy is paid about 400 Egyptian pounds ($25) or a total of 567 million Egyptian pounds ($31 million) for each illiterate person that they help, according to Osama Farrag, the head of the Authority for Literacy. Unfortunately, this seems to serve as a motivation for some within the agency to deliberately profit by facilitating the exams, replacing illiterates with literate people to pass the exams, in order to graduate large numbers and get great financial benefits.
To understand how this can happen, this journalist interviewed a supervisor at the Authority for Literacy. He confirmed that the supervisors will help illiterate people pass the exam even if the exam takers can’t read or write, because the supervisors get more money and job promotions. The supervisor acknowledged in a recorded interview that the teachers in charge of the literacy classes sometimes answer the sheets themselves if they cannot find others to do so. The teachers try to use different handwriting from their own so they will not be discovered. He said the regulations for the anti-illiteracy exams forbid the teachers from attending the exams of any of their own students, to prevent cheating. But the opposite is taking place, because financial benefits flow to supervisors who let the wrong teachers into the exams.
The supervisor for the Authority for Literacy said there is another final test, other than the one conducted in the committees. That test is conducted before the illiterate person who had been educated can get his or her certificate. This is the most important and dangerous stage for students—according to the supervisor—as it takes place in the Authority’s office in the governorate, known as “the committee of dictation” or Istiktab in Arabic. In that exam, the student is asked to read or write a random sentence from a newspaper. If the person manages to do that task, their exam is ratified and they get their certificate. Those who fail are sent back to study again. Teachers are notified if more than one of their students fails. The supervisor said that the committee lets some students pass and others fail somewhat arbitrarily, in order to avoid being discovered, which might happen if all students were passed. He said that favoritism and nepotism govern the process. If one of the illiterate candidates has a relative or an intercession from a member of the security forces, then “the certificate would be handed to him at home with a million kisses on it.”
When the literacy supervisor was asked about his involvement in such manipulations, he said the matter is bigger than his personal role. He said he has been trying to expose this corruption, after he went to some of literacy classrooms and found no students inside. But administrators asked him not to talk about the matter and to sign for the teachers that all students were in attendance, and agree that everything was going all right, or he would be fired. This happened with the concept of “it was noticed with many thanks,” a satirical phrase in Arabic that is known in Egyptian society.
The General Authority for Literacy has announced that 1,750,000 citizens, out of 17 million illiterate citizens in Egypt, have been educated in 2015 alone. But Mustafa Ragab, the former head of the Literacy Authority questioned the number of students educated. “I am confident that 80 percent of those who are getting the literacy certificates cannot read or write,” said Ragab, “as fake numbers about the illiterates who got educated had been delivered to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and to the former Acting President Adly Mansour before.” But he said that when he ran the agency, the certificate meant something. “I am ready to accept any body,” he said “other than the Literacy Authority and the ministry of education, to hold exams for those who got certificates after my time serving there.”
Since the beginning of 2015, the ministry of education made it a prerequisite for any teacher in the ministry working on a two-year teaching diploma to educate five illiterate citizens. Many students have chosen forgery to achieve that. This was revealed in interviews of students who had received a teaching diploma and in a questionnaire answered by 60 students.
Mohammed Wahid, a teaching diploma student at Zagazig University, said, “When they first asked us to educate five illiterate persons, there were officials in the education department who advised us to use some relatives or literate people to make things easier.”
He said a colleague of his had provided a list of six illiterate people to the Literacy Authority, but the authority didn’t accept the names. Three months later, the authority told her the names were not accepted because they were already registered at the Authority. Then, they gave her three answer sheets with the names of three new people. She took the exam on behalf of those people and handed in the answer sheets, and those people passed the exam.
The former head of the Literacy Authority, Mustafa Ragab, said requiring university students to educate illiterate people as a prerequisite for their graduation isn’t right: “It is quite possible that a student can photocopy five or ten national identity cards of illiterate people in his village, if he was from a village, and deliver them to the faculty saying they have passed the exams.” Ragab said “there are classy neighborhoods in Cairo that have no illiterate people, and cities in which there are only a few illiterate people. So, how can they make it the responsibility of the students to look for illiterate people, and if so, then what is the role of the Literacy Authority?”
After five months of investigations, this journalist went with an educated girl to substitute at a literacy test for two illiterate people. The two exam takers got paid a sum of 20 Egyptian pounds ($1.25) each in Qalyubia Governorate. This journalist photographed the forgery, and documented how the supervisors ignored the violations and cheating that was taking place under their noses.
The journalist who conducted the investigation also managed to get the answer sheet with that girl’s handwriting, which attempted to imitate the handwriting of an illiterate woman. The girl also left a question unanswered, in order to falsely suggest that the person who took the test was not completely literate.
The journalist interviewed Osama Farrag, the head of the General Authority for Literacy and Adult Education, the authority that is responsible for supervising the literacy program, and provided him with extensive documentation that false certificates are being issued. Farrag said that he would take legal action against anyone involved in such practices and transfer information about any such person to the Public Prosecutor for investigation. Should such charges be proven, the person would be fired, Farrag said.
Farrag was also provided with the statements of Mustafa Ragab, the former head of the Authority, saying that Ragab considered the numbers of the illiterate people who had been educated to be wrong. But Farrag said that in the time of Ragab’s presidency at the authority, there was no cooperation with the universities and governmental institutions to help educate large numbers of illiterate people or oblige students to educate five illiterate persons. At the time, the Authority was content with the illiterate people registered in its classrooms only, Farrag said.
As regards the involvement of supervisors in allowing educated persons take the exams instead of the illiterate, Farrag said he is not dealing with angels, saying they are mere human beings and can be manipulated by the devil. He also asked that any complaint to be directed to him, advising people to make it comprehensive to include the list of teachers, supervisors, their data and the Authority’s branches involved in any corruption. He stressed that he would not be reluctant to turn anyone in to the authority’s legal affairs department or the public prosecution.
Illiteracy is still an endemic disease in Egypt and getting worse one day after another. It was once said that there is no hope in a nation without knowledge. In the absence of supervision and the lack of rule of law, the situation will get worse, to result in more ignorance and chaos.
The recorded report (The video):