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New education minister raises hopes for future of education in Egypt

Egypt’s new education minister, Tarek Shawki, who was sworn in on Thursday along with eight other ministers in the country’s latest Cabinet reshuffle, has been hailed on social media as the answer to Egypt’s ailing educational system — in stark comparison to his predecessor, Al-Hilaly al-Sherbiny, who received widespread criticism during his tenure, including calls for resignation from MPs and protests by students over the postponement of high-school exams.

Shawki’s experience in academia and education was celebrated on social media platforms in Egypt after his post was announced, with many sharing a video of his TEDx talk in Cairo, in which he spoke about his quest to follow his passions.

The new minister is skeptical about Egypt’s ability to continue providing free education, however, prompting fears about future privatization of the sector. In an interview on privately owned Al-Nahar channel, Shawki asked, “The question now is, who will spend on education? We have to know how much money we have, how many students this money can provide free and good education for, and how we will get the rest of the money.”

Egyptians’ education is not free as it stands, he argued, adding, “People pay for education through private tutoring sessions, in private universities, in the language departments at public universities.”

“[Education] is a product that has a certain cost. We have to see how long the state can afford free education for,” he said.

Shawki previously served as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s senior adviser for education and scientific research, after being appointed dean of the School of Science and Engineering in the American University in Cairo (AUC) in 2012. The new minister has a long academic record in the US, researching and teaching at the University of Illinois for over a decade after completing his PhD at Brown University. Shawki was previously director of UNESCO’s Regional Bureau for Science at Arab States, responsible for a number of ICT in Education, Science and Culture programs, and engineered the UNESCO framework for ICT Competencies of Teachers.

During his work with the presidency, Shawki developed two initiatives, including “The Knowledge Bank,” an online digital portal that includes educational, research and cultural resources for a wide array of users, and “Teachers First”, a program aimed at training teachers to use ICT techniques in education, which he described as the basis of a new educational reform program to be implemented in the country.

Shawki’s predecessor, former Education Minister Sherbiny, was criticized from the beginning of his appointment — immediately after he took up the post in 2015, social media users discovered typos and grammatical mistakes in many of his Facebook posts, leading him to delete his page altogether.

Backlash against the minister continued to mount after the country’s high school exams were leaked online, pushing the ministry to reschedule a number of exams and prompting student protests nationwide.

Sherbiny was also unpopular for a number of other decisions, including one to allocate a part of students’ grades for school attendance and misconduct, and for cancelling midterm exams. Parents have also complained about rising tuition fees for private schools and a shortage in textbooks as a result of problems with ministry print-houses.

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