Egyptian education is a closed system, detached from contemporary realities and isolated from the common cultural heritage of mankind, without which no educational system can hope to produce individuals capable of enriching their nations. But where and when did this tragedy start, and who is responsible?
To answer this, we must go back to the time when Mohammad ‘Ali made education available to all Egyptians.
‘Ali had always dreamed of making Egypt strong and great among the nations of the world, and he believed that this could not be achieved without an appreciation of modern science and contemporary culture. In that belief, ‘Ali was ahead of another great nation, Japan, which discovered the same key to progress a few years later and which has since been using it boldly and effectively. In 1826 ‘Ali sent the first of a series of delegations to France. It is thanks to those delegations that Egypt became so much more advanced than other Arab and African nations by the end of the 19th century.
These missions returned from Europe carrying the torch of knowledge and gave Egypt its first modern educational system—the system which formed Egypt's greatest minds at the end of the 19th century and in the first three decades of the 20th. Egypt produced more outstanding figures in that time than any other nation comparable in size or stage of development has in such a short period. Such figures as politicians Mustapha Kamel, Mohamed Farid, Sa’ad Zaghlul and Abdel Aziz Fahmy; artists, writers and poets Hafez Ibrahim, Zaki Mubarak, Sayed Darwish, Aziz Abaza, Al Sanhouri, and the renowned singer Um Kulthum and many more were products of the solid educational system and culture sparked by the first Egyptian mission sent to Western Europe by ‘Ali in 1826.
Tracing the roots of the “enlightenment” which enriched our scientific and cultural life then is necessary to help us unearth the roots of the present sterility of our educational system and the level to which it has sunk. The virtual collapse of education in our country has gone hand in hand with a breakdown in the values system by which society is governed. The moral and cultural decline is painfully obvious. The situation calls for drastic action. Like a surgeon who would not hesitate to amputate rotting limbs so that the patient may live, we too must ruthlessly remove these festering wounds from the suffering body of Egypt.
The politicization of education:
What I said about the self-imposed isolation of Egyptian post-graduate students studying abroad and their refusal to taste from the host country’s opportunities is all the more true of their counterparts in Egypt. The latter have not even been exposed to other civilizations, nor to the challenge of new ideas that shock Egyptians expatriates in the West and cause them to retreat into themselves in what Arnold Toynbee called a “negative reaction”. In fact, their introversion is a defense mechanism against the challenges posed by the alien culture, and they nurture it with a misplaced belief in their cultural superiority and the sense that they can do without “Western” ideas.
I believe the main reason education fell from its promising heights to the depths of stagnation in which it is now mired is that the education system, both at school and, more particularly, university levels, was subjected to political currents. The subjugation of education of politics did not begin, as some might believe, in the Nasser era, but in 1925, when the old National University was transformed into a state institution and renamed the Egyptian University. The controversy over Taha Hussein’s book on pre-Islamic poetry in the mid-1920s is a striking example of the attempts made by successive governments to subject the university to political orientations. The government of Ismail Sidqi (1930-33) was perhaps the most flagrant at that destructive trend. In the seven years preceding the 1952 Revolution, attempts to politicize the university were further stepped up, culminating in 1953-54 in what came to be known as “the purge”, when the post-revolution regime fired scores of university professors whom it suspected were not in accord with its policies.
Thus it was that although the process of politicizing education was not introduced into Egypt by the 1952 Revolution, it was the years that followed that saw the most blatant and painful examples of politics ruling academic life and trampling it underfoot. Despite the fact that violent repression disappeared by the 1970s, the harm had already been done. The Egyptian University, the pinnacle of the educational edifice, had become an inanimate corpse, trampled into subservience by politics. My purpose here is neither to insult nor to champion any one group against another because the magnitude of the calamity is such that it no longer matters which leader, regime or era is to blame. A small consolation here is that if power had fallen into the hands of the Moslem Brotherhood or the Communists—who, it will be recalled, were a force to be reckoned with in the Egypt of the ‘40s—education would have suffered twice as much as it did at the hands of the new regime in Egypt in 1953-54 and beyond.
Part Three will examine the overall decline in the level of teachers and university professors.