Disputes over how to teach children about the events surrounding the 2011 revolution are growing increasingly heated, revealing how even the public school curriculum is shaped by Egypt’s profound political divisions.
The state’s battle against Islamist politics — a politics mainly associated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood group — has been a linchpin of the curriculum reform debate, especially since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Public statements issued by Education Ministry officials have centered on the urgent need to use curricula and educational methods as tools to protect Egyptian identity from the threat of Islamic discourse.
The most recent controversy erupted last March, when the ministry struck certain subjects in Islamic history from the public school curriculum — particularly subjects that focus on jihad and battles in Islamic history. While ministry officials working on curriculum reform argued that these subjects advocated for violence and hence needed to be removed from the lesson plan, the Salafi Nour Party and others argued that the state was actually tampering with Egyptian identity and history by imposing its official discourse on the curriculum.
Sanaa Gomaa, the head of the Center for Curriculum and Educational Material Development (CCIMD) at the Ministry of Education, explains how the curriculum reform process works.
“We decided that there would be no politics in the curriculum,” Gomaa says. “So we thought we would revise the curriculum this year, with a new vision to remove anything that refers to a political direction or a religious direction — or even anything that was written with a good intention, but could be abused politically.”
What Gomaa describes as “political content” translates broadly into content related to Islamic battles and religious figures from early Islamic history. For example, the ministry removed lessons from Arabic textbooks that focused on Salah al-Din al-Ayoubi and Oqba Ibn Nafea, two of the most celebrated figures in the history of Islamic conquests. Ibn Nafea, the nephew of Amr Ibn al-As, one of Prophet Mohamed’s companions, led the conquest of present-day Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, while Ayoubi is known for founding the Ayoubid state and regaining land that had been taken over by Western armies, including Palestine and Lebanon.
Other chapters expunged from the Arabic textbooks include a fictional text titled “Revolution of the Birds,” in which birds burn their falcon enemies. Ministry officials felt that the story was too reminiscent of the Jordanian pilot who was purportedly burned to death by the self-proclaimed Islamic State earlier this year.
Gomaa explains that these erasures are part of the ministry’s program to eliminate all violent content from the curriculum.
“We decided to focus on human values without getting into jihad, war and bloodiness. It’s not the time for that now,” she argues.
Experts from the CCIMD are asked to draft the curriculum for religion and national studies, Gomaa says, as the textbooks for these subjects “can be used to send strange ideas to children or be written inaccurately. So the center [CCIMD] was careful to take it up itself.”
For other subjects that aren’t as crucial to the formation of the young students’ Egyptian identity, the ministry organizes open competitions for outside experts to develop the curriculum.
For these outsourced curricula, the CCIMD develops a writing guide for those entering the competitions, then judges the proposed textbooks according to a set of criteria developed by the Education Ministry. Ultimately, the textbooks go through the ministry for a final approval.
This year, however, there was an extra step. In March, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb formed a committee to oversee curricular amendments. Mehleb himself presides over the committee, which is composed of the ministers of endowment, education, higher education and scientific research, as well as the grand mufti and the head of Al-Azhar’s education sector.
The committee’s mandate is to implement mechanisms to revise and evaluate curricula for public grade schools and universities. It plays a supervisory role, according to Gomaa, who says that the CCIMD actually implements the major revisions and amendments to these curricula.
The CCIMD also decided to ask experts from Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church to take part in writing textbooks for courses on religion.
Gomaa asserts that the CCIMD distances itself from political debates over the curricula, and only follows its own professional standards. However, the political atmosphere cannot be completely ignored. For example, the center refused to remove chapters focusing on former President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year administration in history textbooks in 2011, but added a few lines about failures in his last years in power. It also decided to acknowledge both the January 25, 2011 protests and the June 30, 2013 demonstrations as popular revolutions, and to address them briefly in some of the lesson plans.
Nayera Abdel Rahman, a researcher focusing on education and curriculum development, believes that the state’s grip on the curriculum reform process reflects the general education philosophy in Egypt, which focuses on molding students into the state’s idea of a good citizen, rather than encouraging them to develop their own personalities, research skills and knowledge of the world around them.
Nayera points to the Constitution, which declares that the first two aims of education are “building the Egyptian character” and “preserving national identity.”
She says that this philosophy is embodied by the extreme centralization of the curriculum writing process, in which the editorial line is determined solely by the ministry and its affiliates.
“There is no inclusion of any of the stakeholders in the educational process, not even teachers or parents. That’s why the curriculum always remain alienating for society,” Nayera argues.
But now that schoolchildren have increasing access to internet and television, political actors might be overestimating this curriculum’s power to influence them.
“I don’t feel that the curriculum has that much of an effect on us,” says Farah Samir, a 17-year-old student in secondary education. “We just memorize it for the exam, and that’s it.”
“Definitely, no one will learn violence from a lesson in the Arabic textbook. But there are other ways that we’re subjected to violence, like television,” she adds.
Farah realizes that the history taught in school books is narrated from “one very specific point of view,” and she doesn’t depend on it for her understanding of historical events.
She believes that overhauling the education system itself so that students would be pushed to understand the subjects they study, as opposed to just memorizing facts, would be much more meaningful than mere amendments to the curriculum.