Maha Hussein clutches the hand of her 10-year-old son Moustafa as she bellows “Leave! Leave!” over and over again outside Egypt’s presidential palace. The boy peers over his thick eyeglasses, looking more bewildered than anything, as hundreds of people around him chant once again for the fall of the country’s regime.
“I brought [Moustafa] here because I am doing this for him,” said Hussein. “Freedom is about education, it’s about thinking, speaking, acting in a certain way. We have not won this freedom yet. Enough is enough!”
As Egypt’s tumultuous transition period approaches a new crossroad, the country’s deepening education crisis threatens to set hundreds of thousands of pupils behind their international counterparts. President Mohamed Morsi, elected by a slim margin in June during the country’s first post-revolution vote, has come under fire in recent weeks after taking measures that allowed him to clamp down on power and shield his administration from judicial oversight. The move prompted his opponents to declare the rise of another dictator, and inspired a new wave of protests, further paralyzing the Arab world’s most populous nation at a time when change for the better is more desperately needed than ever.
Schools have repeatedly been forced to close since protests began in January 2011, with some losing as many as 100 days over the past 18 months amid political and security disruptions. While no recent statistics exist for the number of students leaving Egypt, experts say older pupils are increasingly seeking education abroad in less traditional destinations given the heightening disquiet at home.
“Students who have the means to study abroad have traditionally turned to the U.S. or Europe for higher education,” says Sherif Samy, head of Misr Capital, the investment arm of Banque Misr, and former chairman of Skill Link, a Cairo-based career advisory service. “However, over the past 18 months we’re seeing our youth going to Dubai or Turkey to study, which tells me that they just want to get out of here because the future seems so uncertain.”
Egypt has dedicated 12 percent of total government spending to education over the past four years, according to a report released this year by U.K.-based Chatham House. Broken down to the level of education spending per student, this means just $129 per student per year on education—that’s about 40 times less than the United States spends on each student. The think tank also noted that some teachers in Egypt earn as little as 60 to 70 U.S. cents a day. GDP expenditure of 3.5 percent is also the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa, compared with Saudi Arabia and Morocco, which each spent approximately 5.7 percent of their GDP on education.
On December 15, Egyptians will vote on a draft Constitution, hastily submitted two weeks ago by an almost entirely Islamist constitutional committee, after secular members walked out in protest of Morsi’s power grab. Several articles of the draft Constitution deal with education, and some Egyptian scholars cite potential pitfalls buried in the text. Article 12, for example, states the responsibility of the state to “safeguard the cultural and linguistic constituents of society, and foster the Arabization of education, science, and knowledge.” The article is “regressive,” noted Helwan University scholar Sherif Younis in a recent editorial in the Egypt Independent newspaper. It “has proved its failure in Syria, for instance, since it should be preceded by notable Arab contributions to sciences.”
Amr Mahmoud, a first-year medical student at Cairo University, suggests that such a practice should not apply to all academic disciplines. “Medicine is a universal language by itself,” he says. “I respect the idea of promoting stronger Arabic in schools, but we cannot apply this to all subjects.”
More alarming is the indisputable link between education and economic growth, which has suffered a decline since the popular uprising began last year. Economic growth slowed to 2.6 percent in the third quarter, down from 3.3 percent a year earlier. Egypt’s budget deficit widened to about 70 billion Egyptian pounds ($11.4 billion) last quarter, with reserves down to $15.4 billion in November and the pound trading at 8-year lows against the dollar. The economic slump and concurrent political crisis prompted the government to request a delay on a much needed $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund–Minister of Finance Mumtaz al-Said telling Reuters that he hopes to reopen talks with the fund in a month, following the constitutional referendum.
Experts also cite the potential dangers of waning education on the workforce. Official figures show unemployment has risen from 9 percent to 12 percent since the uprising began last year, and analysts say this figure is a low estimate. Illiteracy, a problem for Egypt long before the 2011 revolution, is currently estimated at 30 percent nationwide. With hundreds of thousands of people protesting across Egypt once again for a regime change, many suggest the need for a complete overhaul grows dire by the day.
“My son’s future is on the line,” says Hussein, while beside her 10-year-old Moustafa waves a small Egyptian flag. “Egypt has so much potential. I will continue to protest if this is what it takes.”