Tariq Shawqi was sworn in as Egypt’s education minister last February, joining the ranks of a group of technocrats in a cabinet not characterized by boldness. He has since challenged everything about the Egyptian education system—criticizing teachers, examinations, pedagogy, and textbooks (and not just the current textbooks, the very idea of textbooks are in his crosshairs). With each verbal bombshell he has challenged not only longstanding practices, but also powerful forces.
His first target was the system of examinations on which Egypt’s educational system rests. Periodic exams and certificates culminate in the general secondary school exam(thanawiyya ‘amma) in which students are tested on a battery of subjects. Their score determines not only whether they pass or fail, but also what subjects they may study in the state university system. The examination (and earlier examinations, such as those at the end of sixth grade) have legions of critics who charge that they are based on rote memorization, place enormous and inappropriate pressures on young students, and encourage students to study subjects at the university level based on their level of prestige, determined by their exam score, rather than their own interests and abilities.
The stress on examinations has generated corruption as well. Teachers hire themselves out to give private lessons, for a fee, where they coach students for the test. This shifts education outside of state-supported classrooms into a hazy and ill-regulated market where families feel compelled to spend money to guarantee their children’s success.
Shawqi’s educational vision, in contrast, is to equip youth with creativity, innovation, and critical thinking skills. By abolishing the primary school certificate and the general secondary school exam system, Shawqi imagines a classroom where students and educators are not merely focused on the final grades they receive, but rather on learning necessary knowledge and skills to assimilate successfully into society and contribute to Egypt’s economy.
While Shawqi has acknowledged the work, time, and effort necessary to implement such policies, many are apprehensive about his vision for education reform. Members of the Education Committee in parliament describe Shawqi’s vision as unrealistic, based on policies that exist solely “in his dreams” and that “cannot be implemented on this earth.” Criticism has also been directed at Shawqi himself, deeming him unfit for the job due to his lack of experience in the education ministry. His critics have affirmed that an individual from within the ministry would be more competent to run its affairs—a common attitude in Egypt where ministers are routinely drawn from the very bureaucracies and structures they are asked to head. Shawqi, by contrast, has spent his career outside the state educational system, in institutions such as UNESCO and the American University in Cairo.
The new minister has also suggested that Egypt needs to pay attention to educators on both qualitative and quantitative grounds. Not only does the country need more teachers, he has said, but he has also devoted attention to training and pedagogy. As part of his vision to improve teaching for the 2017–2018 academic year, where approximately 22 million students will be attending state schools, Shawqi has developed an online initiative named “Teachers First.” The initiative aims to train teachers to use computer technology in education. A total of 10,000 teachers were chosen for training, and Shawqi hopes to reach 1 million students and learners.
But while the minister portrays his initiatives as supporting teachers, that is not how they have always been received. In an interview, Shawqi was quoted as saying that about half of the teachers in his ministry were “bluffs,” and the other half were underqualified. While he denied the comments, they nonetheless caused controversy. Indeed, a number of teachers expressed frustration and considered filing lawsuits against the minister.
Shawqi has taken on textbooks as well, suggesting that important subjects can be taught without supplying students with the free books that have been a staple of school life and pedagogy for generations. Instead, schools can shift to online texts and resources. The minister has expressed the aim of reducing textbooks by 70 percent in the next academic year, to encourage the integration of advanced technology into teaching methods and techniques. Ironically, this need is felt even in the subject of computer technology, where students are currently taught how to use a computer using printed textbooks and are unable to implement the lessons learnt on the actual devices themselves. The transition to online textbooks is also perceived as a necessity to encourage investment in private and public access to internet in remote areas.
This proposal has its supporters to be sure, but it has also run into principled criticism. Access to online resources is hardly universal in Egypt and some worry that schools serving rural areas or poorer students will fall victim to a digital divide. It also crosses some material interests, as textbook printing is a major industry. Those who look at the possibility of significant savings are balanced by those who fear pulling the rug out from under state-supported printers. In parliament, the deputy chairman of the Committee for Education and Scientific Research, Hani Abaza, has stated that in the short run, schools cannot function without textbooks. For a successful integration of technology into education, the transition must be slow and gradual instead of fast and abrupt.
While tests, teachers, and books have been formidable targets, there are still other areas of controversy that Shawqi has had to face. They include tangles over a new Japanese educational initiative, regulations for international schools, and even the Egyptian flag.
In a cooperative initiative between Egypt and Japan, the Japanese Tokosto Plus education system was to be implemented in 45 schools starting in the 2017–2018 academic year. In mid-October, however, Egypt’s education ministry announced that the initiative would be postponed for another year. According to Shawqi, the delay was intended to allow time for a more thorough evaluation of students and teachers, as well as finalizing the building and furnishing of the schools. Shawqi denounced rumors that the postponement was a result of Egypt’s disagreement with the Japanese authorities, and emphasized that it was an attempt to improve the quality of the schools being built.
The education ministry has also imposed sanctions on approximately 47 international schools for committing various legal violations. Shawqi has furthered the action by halting the licensing of any new international schools before the issues with current schools are resolved.
Further controversy resulted from a ministerial order released in early October, requiring school students to “respect the Egyptian flag or they might risk jail time.” The order states that mocking the Egyptian flag will be punished with jail time or a fine of EGP30,000, equivalent to around $1,700, without specifying the actions that constitute disrespect for the flag.
In setting off such controversies, the new minister has garnered plenty of attention. His statements break through the platitudes and vague pledges that populate much ministerial rhetoric and undiplomatically, even pungently, decry existing realities. But in the process, Shawqi comes off not simply as frank and bold, but also as someone seeking to shake up well-established ways of doing things and offend important stakeholders.
In the end, it may not simply be vested interests that trip him up but also hard realities. Egypt’s educational system has been built to serve the needs of a vast and growing population in a poor country. Like most state services, it is starved for resources and has developed in an environment in which quality must be sacrificed for quantity.
And by its side a host of private coping mechanisms have emerged for those who seek, and can afford, something better for their children, such as private lessons and private schools, that, collectively, form treacherous ground to tread. The ministry has uneven control over such things and any minister who steps into that field risks disrupting makeshift solutions and being held responsible for parts of the system where his tools are more limited.
There are some actions that Shawqi can take on his own, and he has done so. Due to the inadequate teaching methods for the subjects of computer technology and art, both will be graded using a pass-fail system and will be taken out of a student’s final cumulative average score. Shawqi has also created orders to focus on employment opportunities for youth, and one such order dictates that more than 80 percent of new assistants to the minister be young.
The question for Egyptian education is whether Shawqi’s brash vision will generate fundamental changes. Or will the forces arrayed against reform eventually force the minister to confess ruefully, in the spirit of the jaded Soviet diplomat in the 1987 play “A Walk in the Woods,” that the attitude of his superiors toward him is, “I’m walking on eggshells, just now, at home … They think I’ve been awfully ... active, this year.”