Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Talibanization of Education in Egypt

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Talibanization of Education in Egypt

Article excerpt

Egypt once prided itself on being a tolerant, diverse state. While nearly the entire Jewish, Armenian, and Greek communities left in the 1950s, Egypt is still home to the largest Christian minority in the Arab world. Its Coptic community accounts for some 10 percent of the total population of 80 million.1 The state resisted the Muslim Brotherhood's attempt to overthrow what it considered a secular order. After the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, it also fought an Islamist insurgency. Yet, while fighting the Islamist terrorist groups (which were largely defeated in the mid-1990s), the government moved to co-opt much of their platform. State-owned media, for example, now proselytize Islam.2 While adults can decline to read newspapers, the same is not true for students receiving compulsory state education. These students must not only read tracts intended to indoctrinate Islam but also regurgitate them by rote, demonstrate mastery for teachers, and pass mandatory exams.


Traditionally, education in Egypt was the responsibility of individuals, families, and communities, but as already in 1836, Egypt's ruler, Muhammad Ali Pasha (ruled 1805-1848), had created a department of education. His grandson, the Khedive Isma'il (ruled 1863-1879), transformed it into a ministry in 1869.3 The ministry founded public schools and also occasionally subsidized schools built by the Coptic Church and foreign missionaries as well, even as it granted them autonomy with their curriculums. However, in 1955, three years after Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy, the government nationalized education. While President Anwar Sadat permitted private schools to operate after 1970, all schools had to teach the Ministry of Education's curricula for the Arabic language, religion, history, and social studies. Today, even Egyptian students who pursue an international baccalaureate or a U.S. diploma in Egypt must pass state exams that are part of the Ministry of Education curricula in order to graduate.

Initially, the state required only Muslims to attend religion classes and permitted non-Muslims to leave the room during lessons. Beginning in the 1990s, however, the Ministry of Education gradually introduced a religion curriculum for Christians. Christian students must leave the classroom and assemble around any Christian teacher who happens to be available during the religion class period.

Though the state is supposed to remain neutral on religious affairs, by the late 1980s religious content had begun to penetrate Arabic language courses. Some education ministers, Hussein Kamel Bahaa Eddin, for example, sought to counter religious extremists inside educational institutions, but even as the Egyptian state fought the Islamist insurgency, it enabled Islam to infiltrate its educational curriculum, perhaps in order to appease the constituency that had supported the Islamists. By adopting more fundamentalist religious positions, the Egyptian state may have felt that it could compete with the Islamists' attractiveness among those who perhaps found solace in conservative religious views and practice.

Today, the Egyptian state curriculum's Islamic orientation is clear. The history curriculum describes the Islamic invasion of Egypt as a "glorious" and "noble" event that liberated the people "from oppression" and "ignorance," a slight to the indigenous Coptic population, which predates the Arab invasion. The Education Ministry also sponsors annual Koran memorization competitions,4 and some schools have replaced the national anthem with Islamic chants.

The Arabic language curriculum also indoctrinates pupils in Islam. The fall 2007 curriculum consisted of 126 separate Arabic language lessons for students from the second to the ninth grade, of which 52 lessons-more than 40 percent-are centered on Islamic texts. This reliance on religious texts is an ideological choice, not a necessity. Egyptian literature, like the English canon, is rich. …

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