The Education Crisis in Egypt and the Arab World

Feb 20

One of the most devastating legacies of the Mubarak regime on Egypt, and one that will take years to overcome, is in education. Years of neglect have resulted in the collapse of the public educational system.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, to find that Egyptian students perform exceptionally poorly in international standardized tests.  According to this New York Times article, Egyptian 8th-graders placed in the bottom quartile of a 48 nation standardized test in mathematics.  More shocking, perhaps, is that seven other Arab countries were in the lowest quartile: Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, Palestine, Oman, Algeria, Syria and Qatar.  Qatar had the dubious honor of placing last.  Egypt’s decay was symptomatic of a general decay in the Arab public sphere, where ruling elites lost interest in development and busied themselves primarily in concocting schemes to enrich themselves.  As mentioned in an article I posted previously on, the Arab world is mired in oligarchical capitalism, which can be described in the following terms:

Oligarchic capitalism exists where power and money are highly concentrated among a few. It is the worst form of capitalism, not only because of the extreme inequality in income and wealth that such economies tolerate, but also because the elites do not promote growth as the central goal of economic policy. Instead, oligarchs fix the rules to maximize their own income and wealth. Such arrangements prevail in large parts of Latin America, the Arab Middle East, and Africa.

Until we Arabs get rid of oligarchic capitalism, we cannot expect substantial investment in the Arab peoples.  The current revolutions that are spreading throughout the Arab world are essentially an attempt to overthrow this entrenched system of oligarchy which cares only for itself.  The message they give their peoples is that of the early Islamic satirical poet Hutay’a, who lampooned a contemporary by saying:

دع المكارم لا ترحل لبغيتها واقعد إنك أنت الطاعم الكاسي

“Leave aside noble deeds and do not weary yourself in journey seeking them;

Instead, take a seat and rest, for indeed your stomach is full and you are well-clothed.”

That is what the Arab regimes have done to their people: convinced them that they can only aspire for food in their stomach and shirts on their back, but otherwise, they should have no dreams.  These revolutions are about reclaiming the peoples’ right to dream of a future that is more than just a full-belly and a comfortable shirt.

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