(July 7, 2016 / JNS)
Rooted in decades of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism and contempt for Israel, many Egyptians know little of the history and culture of their Jewish neighbors. Although Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty nearly 40 years ago, only a cold peace exists, with virtually no interaction between the Israeli and Egyptian people. But amid the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East region, some Egyptians—aided by a warming of relations between Arab states and Israel—are seeking to change that status quo and bring a new outlook to their country.
Their proposed vehicle for change? Education.
Diana Ashraf Guirguis, an optimistic 24-year-old Egyptian who has been living in the United States for almost a year, told JNS.org that her experience abroad has profoundly changed her worldview, especially regarding Israel. She expressed the need for improving the quality of education and career opportunities back home.
“What we learned in our school is all about Islamic history. The only thing we learned is that Israel was our enemy, we won the wars [against Israel], and we live in peace [now],” said Guirguis.
“When I moved to the U.S., I learned a lot about Israel, and it’s totally different than what I learned in Egypt,” she said. “Some people in Egypt don’t like [Israelis], don’t treat them as humans. [That was] the only picture stuck in our head….We know nothing about them, we don’t talk about it because it’s so sensitive. If you want to go visit [Israel], your names will be sent to [the police].”
Guirguis’s education in Egypt reflects the typical beliefs that are evidenced through polls and the country’s lack of curricular reform.
A 2014 poll by the Anti-Defamation League showed that 75 percent of the Egyptian population holds anti-Semitic attitudes. A similar study by the Pew Research Center in 2010 found that 95 percent of Egyptians hold unfavorable views of Jews.
But more recently, a 9th-grade Egyptian textbook drew headlines because its revisions featured a shift from open contempt for Israel to a more positive emphasis on peace, including a focus on the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Ofir Winter, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank in Tel Aviv, compared the new textbook, “The Geography of the Arab World and the History of Modern Egypt,” to a previous textbook published in 2002 under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
According to Winter, the textbook’s number of pages dedicated to focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was reduced to 12, down from 32 from the 2002 edition, while the emphasis on peace with Israel was slightly increased from three to four pages. Also included in the new edition was a photograph of the signing of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, along with statements stressing why the accord was benefited Egypt and other Arab states. The new edition ties these issues to broader contemporary goals, such as combating extremism and terrorism.
The changes in Egypt’s school curriculum come amid a wider improvement in Egyptian-Israeli ties under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Since El-Sisi rose to power in Egypt in 2014, the Arab nation and Israel have increased military cooperation to counter the threats from Islamic terror groups, including the Islamic State’s affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula and Hamas (an offshoot of the blacklisted Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood). Earlier this year, Egypt restored its ambassador to Israel after a three-year hiatus.
Despite these positive changes, Diana Ashraf Guirguis, who is a practicing Christian, said that her religious education contrasts with how she learned about Israel in Egyptian public schools.
“[In Christian schools] we learned Israel is the ‘beloved people of God,’ that ‘they didn’t do anything wrong to Palestinians,’ and that they didn’t take their land by force, but that it is God’s promise to them,” she said, adding that she realized how previously, in Egyptian public schools, teachers “were lying to me, to convince me to think a certain way.”
Like Guriguis, today’s Egyptian students are challenging their culture and government by displaying their dissatisfaction with a failing education system.
In late June, Egyptian students clashed with police as they protested in front of the Ministry of Education in downtown Cairo, and later at Tahrir Square, calling for the education minister’s resignation and the reforming of Egypt’s “oppressive and failing” education system. The protesters were met with tear gas, armored vehicles, rubber bullets, and arrests.
The protest was sparked by the government’s decision to postpone high school final exams because questions and answers were leaked on social media, although the Egyptian Centre for the Right to Education said the exams have been leaked for years. Some are claiming that the Ministry of Education has been leaking the exams themselves to benefit children of government officials and celebrities. Overcrowded classrooms as well as the plight of poorly trained and underpaid teachers have led to nationwide outcry about the state of education in Egypt.
“The current protests by secondary school students over the failure of government officials to prevent the leaking of national exams show the disenchantment of Egyptians with a dysfunctional system,” Michele Dunne, director and senior associate for the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told JNS.org.
“Egypt, with a population of 91 million and growing fast, has a massive human development problem,” said Dunne. “The country’s public education system, from basic through university, does not prepare young people with the skills they need to be employable in the global economy. Parents need to send their children to private schools in order to get a decent education, and many cannot afford that.”
Improvements in Egypt’s education system could also be a positive step for the future of Egyptian-Israeli relations.
“Curricular reform—including the production of new textbooks that would teach Egyptian history in a way that encourages regional peace, mutual respect among people of different faiths, and citizenship—would be extremely helpful,” Dunne said.
Education reform not only affects socio-cultural relations between Egypt and its neighbors, but also the Egyptian economy.
“It is a great pity that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has not made educational reform, or any aspect of human development, a priority during his first two years in office,” said Dunne. “Reform of education, including vocational education, plus policies to attract labor-intensive industries to the country are the most promising approaches to economic development for Egypt….Instead, El-Sisi has focused on infrastructure mega projects such as the second Suez Canal project, in which the military can play a major role. So far, such projects have failed to create the number of jobs needed to make a real difference. Egypt’s economy is sinking, and its young people are increasingly alienated and desperate.”
One of the factors influencing Guirguis’s decision to study abroad was the awareness that she could not obtain the quality of education she needed in her field of study—media production—at home. She plans to begin studying at community college in September, with the goal of later transferring to a four-year college or university in order to earn a bachelor’s degree in media production. Guirguis intends to eventually return to Egypt and utilize multimedia production to reach Arabic speakers in the Middle East, specifically through Christian media.
Guirguis also wants to teach Christian leaders in Egypt to think outside the box and travel the world in pursuit of learning and outreach, and then to return to their home country to share what they have learned.
“I had this idea that we have to spread this all over the world to give people a chance to build their own thinking, to give them the whole picture and to [let them] choose for themselves,” she said. “I am not against Israelis or Palestinians. What I really do care about is to keep the humanity between us, as we are all human.”