Unifying Egypt’s education system
The issue of the duality of civic and religious education has been one of the most important in Arab societies for decades. In the early 20th century, religious education in Egypt was unrivaled. At that time, people were only reading and writing the Qur’an and Islamic jurisprudence, so much so that the title “scholar” became limited to clerics. But things changed with modern, state-sponsored education in public and private schools.
Data from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics indicates that 25 percent of those involved in the educational process in Egypt today — both schoolchildren and university students — are studying at religious educational institutions (schools, institutes and colleges affiliated to Al-Azhar). This means there are more than four million pupils and students receiving their education from beginning to end in religious educational institutions, which highlights the importance of discussing the duality this creates, as well as its social, political and economic dimensions, implications and consequences.
It is likely that Egypt did not have a clear strategic educational policy following the spread of public and private schools. We have reached the current situation because of the repercussions of the fait accompli, the bureaucracy and the natural development of urban, residential and social movements.
Society has intentionally or unintentionally injected large numbers of its neediest, poorest and least-educated citizens into a large religious educational system
The regular schools emerged together with the Al-Azhar institutions and were attended by the sons and daughters of the small towns and villages. However, it is surprising that the religious education network was seen as the minimum solution to the problems the poorer segments of society. Therefore, society has intentionally or unintentionally injected large numbers of its neediest, poorest and least-educated citizens into a large religious educational system, with serious consequences for the future.
A report issued by CAPMAS in March showed that the total number of schools in Egypt had reached 52,664, including 45,279 public schools and 7,238 private schools, which shows a clear and undeniable contrast within the education sector. We can say here that the discrimination between the sons of one country according to their potential is destroying the values of national loyalty among students. Current national education in public schools does not achieve its goal. Private and foreign education, in particular, is the real education that senior state officials are concerned about. Consequently, this shows that officials are not convinced of public education and, therefore, are not expected to support or care for it.
In the middle of this year, Al-Azhar rejected calls for the integration of public and Al-Azhar education following statements by Tarek Shawki, the Egyptian Minister of Education, who announced what sounded like an intention to “merge” (but he was actually only talking about some coordination with Al-Azhar at the kindergarten stage). Al-Azhar University rejected these calls, explaining that Al-Azhar education has always established citizenship and patriotism and that its staff has played such a role throughout its history. It seems that Shawki did not expect such a reaction and decided to reconsider the issue.
In contrast, educational experts welcomed the matter, stressing the need to unify basic education, consolidate the principle of citizenship and eliminate the dual character exploited by terrorist groups. The Parliamentary Education Committee also welcomed the proposal, with MP Magda Nasr saying that the standardization of curricula and basic subjects required an agreement between Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Education. She added that the proposal to merge the two types of education could bridge the gap between the levels of students in the two types of school.
Some adopted a middle view and called for the formation of a steering committee to discuss the integration, stressing the importance of unifying education in Egypt without regard to religion or race in order to consolidate the principle of citizenship. They said the idea of integration is not new, but has been on the table for many years.
Surprisingly, this storm ended with nothing — no committee was formed and no idea was discussed.
In recent years, Al-Azhar has expanded, launching a large number of institutions to take its total to more than 10,000, along with 81 colleges. This great number is in dire need of educational discipline and guidance, which has led Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb, President of Al-Azhar University, to take the decision to establish a pre-university council of Al-Azhar education: A move that educational circles considered “unprecedented in promoting the educational process in Al-Azhar and upgrading its various aspects according to systematic and disciplined strategic plans.”
Some thought that the sector of Al-Azhar education needed such a council to benefit from the expertise of specialists in various fields. The decision was widely accepted and welcomed by those responsible for the educational process in Al-Azhar, as the council would promote pre-university education in all its stages.
It is noteworthy that, two years ago, Al-Azhar announced a plan for the development of its education, which has already been applied. It focused on three aspects: Curriculum development commensurate with each stage; raising the efficiency of teachers, with planning and continuous training in each sector; and raising the efficiency of its educational institutions.
Al-Azhar’s plans for development and modernization may come to fruition if they go in the right direction and if the urgent need to renew the discourse and thus curricula in accordance with the times is met.
- Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy