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Education and orientalist discourse

The topic of education fits neatly into the orientalist middle class rhetoric about the poor, ignoring its role as an instrument of class power and domination in an autocratic country like Egypt. 

School in Egypt. Picture by Karen Green / (CC BY-SA 2.0)In April 2018, the World Bank agreed to grant Egypt a loan worth 500 million USD, earmarked for education reform. This was followed by a publicity blitz by the Egyptian minister of education, Tarek Shawky, where he highlighted the primary features of this reform, which would involve a complete overhaul of the educational system.

On paper, these reforms are close to a middle class, liberal fantasy. For example, the focus on memorization, which has plagued the school system, is to be replaced with a focus on research, as well as, creative and critical thinking. It will also involve the use of computer tablets, replacing the printed book, as well as, a complete overhaul of the grading system. The minister also highlighted the fact that the President himself is supervising this project, and is prioritizing it.

The announcement was greeted warmly by many of my middle class friends and acquaintances, who viewed this development as a positive step towards creating a politically aware citizenry that is able to participate effectively in the political process. This was, usually, followed by a response that emphasized the importance of education as a solution to Egypt’s problems, explicitly condemning the poor, which is the vast majority of the Egyptians, as both, ignorant and in need of civilizing.

When placed within this context, one can see how the topic of education fits, neatly, into the orientalist middle class rhetoric about the poor, as well as, wilfully ignoring the role that the education system plays as an instrument of class power and domination in an autocratic country like Egypt. 

Education is usually the first answer that comes to mind in conversations with my middle class friends about how Egypt can tackle its complex and growing issues. No mention is made of the impact of years of autocracy, violence, and repression on the degradation and dehumanization of the poor, nor is there any mention made that the prominent roles that the elites and their middle class supporters have played in this process.

This can be attributed to two main reasons, which can be traced to the historical genesis of the urban middle class in the Arab world in general, and Egypt in particular. This class can trace its modern roots to the devastating encounter between western imperialism and Egypt, which was followed by the latter’s failed attempts at modernization.

These attempts, driven mostly from the top, triggered a process of class formation that lead to the creation of the urban middle class, which perceived itself as the bearer of the cause of national salvation. This was to be achieved, either through wholesale adaptation of western methods, or through a rejectionist approach that promoted a return to what it described as an authentic Islam, namely, Islamism.

I, like Nasser and Qutub, am the product of this class formation

The lines between the two factions were never clear-cut, while they borrowed from each other as they struggled for supremacy. I, like Nasser and Qutub, am the product of this class formation, as well as, the movements that they represented, namely the rise of the military strong men and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Thus, this class, which is a minority in the country, holds a paternalistic view that is heavily influenced by orientalist depictions of the rest of the populace. This is coupled by an autocratic and anti-democratic bent, which is constantly justified by the argument that the Egyptian poor are not ready for democracy, an issue that could be easily resolved through mass education programs, which will “enlighten” the people to their “real” interest.

For example, many argue that the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood stems from poverty and ignorance, rather than authentic appeal to the core ideological values and a deeply appealing moral message to many. This, of course, ignores the fact that the mass core of the Brotherhood comes from the middle class, albeit with more of a rural hue, and that the leadership is highly educated, and in some cases extremely wealthy. The most prominent examples of this is Mohamed Badie, the general guide of the Brotherhood, who is a University Professor, as well as, Hassan Malik and Khairat el Shater, both wealthy business men.

The issues with this view on education are many folds. First, and most obvious, is the deeply orientalist overtones that this rhetoric has, which helps sustain the deeply undemocratic character of the Egyptian polity. Second, and most importantly, it completely ignores the overarching social context, which has led to the degradation and de-humanization of the mass of Egyptians, most importantly, the role that the autocracy has played in this degradation.

This misdiagnosis, which stems from the urge to justify the failure of the middle class to deliver on its self-anointed mission of modernization, explicitly shifts the blame for the failures of the democratic movement to the masses, rather than the elites, military and civilian alike, who worked to undermine it. One only needs to remember that the coup of 2013 was openly welcomed by a number of prominent opposition figures, with both leftist and liberal credentials, liked Mohamed El Baradie and Hamdeen Sabahi.

This process of “passing the bucket” has allowed the middle class to avoid a process of self-reflection and criticisms

This process of “passing the bucket” has allowed the middle class to avoid a process of self-reflection and criticisms, which might have caused it to mature and develop. On the contrary, it has simply moved the blame to the victims, and has thrown its support behind the army generals, who, ironically, continue to follow economic policies that disenfranchises them.

The third issue with this logic is that it assumes that education operates in a societal vacuum, in essence ignoring the deeply autocratic values, which have a stranglehold over the Egyptian polity, inhibiting the development of democratic values, and most importantly, the ability to resist and to question.

Thus, any education reforms that aims at developing political participation needs to be accompanied by wide range societal changes that challenges the existing status quo, not simply an educational revamp, which even, if successful, will be met by stiff resistance by the forces of the status quo.

Finally, and most dangerously, is the total ignorance of the role that the school system plays as a tool for ideological indoctrination and spreading of the hegemony of the ruling classes, in the case of Egypt, military capitalism, which is inherently anti-democratic. As a product of the Egyptian schooling system myself, I remember how the school system was used, not only to falsify history and create a pro-military narrative, but to instil a sense of submission and respect of authority based on tradition and religious dogma.

As such, one cannot imagine a true reform of the educational system that is free from theses constraints, which would allow students to question the ideological cornerstone of the Egyptian autocracy. One needs to remember the “our strength comes from our Egyptiness” propaganda campaign, launched by the ministry of Education, with clear fascist undertones.

The reform of the education system is at best, a small part of the puzzle and the middle class obsession with it is, simply, a reflection of the failure of this class to drive the modernization process in the country. The current narrative, besides being steeped in orientalist symbols and rhetoric, shields the middle class from self-questioning. A necessary process in order to develop the needed social and political consciousness is shifting the blame on the shoulders of the masses, who are seen as uncivilized and corrupt.

This is very similar to the view held by the European colonialist about the Egyptians, not too long ago, and some argue, is still being held until this day. In essence, the scars of the colonial encounter, and the origins of the middle class, which is deeply intertwined with it, have led to a form of self-loathing and orientalism that is essential to the view that this class holds of itself, namely as a modernizing force that is under siege by the hordes of poor and uncivilized. An island of civility in the sea of savagery.

Without a change in this view and an embrace of the masses of the people, the development of the democratic movement is bound to be stunted and isolated. This can be best summarized by Franz Fanon, one of the great intellectuals of the anticolonial movement who said “the unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.” Let us hope that the lessons of the past are not forgotten! 

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