Published September 22, 2011
From overcrowded schools in the southern city of Beni Suef to public universities in coastal Alexandria to an elite American university in the desert outskirts of Cairo, an unprecedented wave of strikes has erupted across Egypt's education system. Tens of thousands of teachers, university professors, and students are taking part in mass protests that have varying demands but all echo the same revolutionary calls for change.
With the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February following an 18-day popular uprising, longtime demands for education reform in Egypt -- from increased teachers' wages to the removal of regime-appointed officials -- suddenly went from distant hope to achievable reality. But, as with so much else in the post-Mubarak transitional period, change in the education system has been halting and haphazard. While teachers and students alike quickly mobilized in the revolution's early weeks to set out clear agendas for reform, they were met with resistance from the powers that be -- namely the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that took power after Mubarak's ouster and the cabinet of ministers that serves under it.
Mounting frustration boiled over this month, culminating in a series of protests and strikes across multiple levels of the education system.
The first major action was on Sept. 10, when 15,000 schoolteachers, comprising dozens of education movements and associations from governorates across the country, gathered to protest in front of the ministerial cabinet's headquarters in downtown Cairo. Their demands include the resignation of Education Minister Ahmed Moussa, increased wages, implementation of a 200 percent productivity bonus promised to public-sector workers, securing of employees' tenure and benefits through permanent contracts, and setting a minimum wage of roughly $200 per month.
A week later, on Sept. 17, the first day of the academic year, tens of thousands of teachers began a nationwide, open-ended strike -- the first collective action by Egypt's educators since 1951.
Although the Education Ministry announced that the number of teachers participating in the strike was minimal, media reports, citing activists and organizers, estimated that 65 to 75 percent of Egypt's 1 million teachers did not report to their classrooms.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf responded by saying that meeting the teachers' demands along with those of 6 million other public servants would be a difficult task, but added he is working with the education minister to resolve teachers' grievances with the goal of bringing the strike to an end.
"The teachers' revolution has begun, and it will not stop unless there is immediate reform," says Barakat El Sharafawi, the Giza representative of the Independent Teachers' Syndicate, which called for the strike. "We won't back down until at least the education minister resigns and there is a timetable in place for our other demands."
By all accounts, Egypt's state school system is a broken one. Overcrowded classrooms, with up to 60 students per class, are tended to by teachers who are among the most poorly paid civil servants in the country's vastly bureaucratic public sector. In many cases to make ends meet, teachers essentially force undereducated students to pay for private lessons to pass their grade, creating a shadow education system that places a financial burden on parents.
"The reform of the education system is for the benefit of the parents and the students more than the teachers," Sharafawi says. "Parents completely are understanding this and are supporting the strike."
The mass strike comes in defiance of reported threats by Education Ministry officials of dismissal or jail time for teachers who participate. It also comes one week after the military council announced it would broaden the scope of Egypt's long-standing emergency laws in the wake of protesters' storming of the Israeli Embassy, to be applied against "aggression against the freedom to work, sabotaging factories and holding up transport, blocking roads and deliberately publishing false news, statements or rumors."
"The right to strike is an official right for any human being working on the face of the Earth," Sharafawi counters, citing multiple international human rights laws, a 1966 U.N. treaty Egypt signed, and a 2003 labor law ratified by the Egyptian parliament. "The revolution arose to give rights to all classes of society. We are entitled to hold a peaceful strike."
The Independent Teachers' Syndicate is vowing to continue the strike and escalate its protests if demands are not met, with plans for another large demonstration at the ministerial cabinet's headquarters and the possible launch of an open sit-in in the coming days.
Mass protests have also spread to higher education, where university professors and students are threatening a strike of their own on Oct. 1, the first day of the new term. On Sept. 11, more than 5,000 professors marched to the Ministry of Higher Education after the military council and the interim government failed to meet their demands, which include the removal of presidents, deans of faculties, and their deputies at 19 state universities and their replacement with administrators selected through a democratic process. For much of Mubarak's reign, university heads were appointed by the government, and they then selected deans and vice deans throughout the school. The selection process was overseen by the State Security branch of the Interior Ministry, which chose people based largely on their loyalty to the regime. Senior university officials acted as an extension of the ruling National Democratic Party within higher education, furthering regime polices and containing any growing opposition movements -- socialist, Islamist, or otherwise -- among the student body.
"The security presence within the university was very important to the regime to control people, to control the way of thinking," says Khaled Samir, an assistant professor of cardiac surgery at Ain Shams Medical School and the spokesperson for the Unified Coalition for the Independence of Universities. "We are obliged to stop this. We are obliged to make the change real."
The professors are also demanding transparency in the management of university budgets, increased wages, and greater government spending on higher education.
Students and professors began demonstrating in mid-March, a month after Mubarak's ouster, to put pressure on the ruling military council. In early July, hundreds of university professors staged a sit-in at more than a dozen campuses across the country.
Their efforts did not go unheeded. Last month, the presidents of Cairo, Fayoum, Helwan, and Al-Wadi Al-Gadid universities stepped down before their terms expired, while eight others resigned after their terms ended. Six other university heads, however, have refused to step down, and scores of top administrators remain in their positions. Although university professors say incumbent administrators would be welcome to try to regain their position by running in democratic elections, the military council last week reiterated its refusal to force their resignations.
"We don't want to strike, but we are obliged to do this because this is our only way to say that this cannot continue," says Samir, who was among a group of professors that on Sept. 14 met with members of the Supreme Council, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the country's de facto ruler. In addition to the planned Oct. 1 strike, professors plan to surround administration offices on campuses to prevent officials from entering the buildings.
University students have fully backed their instructors. Last week, the national student union organized demonstrations on campuses across the country in solidarity with the professors and announced its intention to participate in the strike by having students not attend classes.
"Why are we keeping these administrators in place when it is well known that State Security appointed them and that many of them are involved in rampant corruption?" says Hala Ahmed Safwat, a fourth-year student at Cairo University and a member of the April 6 Youth Movement. "This revolution was a revolution of the youth, which is us," she says. "If they don't fulfill our demands, we'll do another revolution if we need to."
The unprecedented wave of education strikes hit another milestone this month when it spread beyond the country's state institutions to reach the unlikeliest of places: the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt's most elite educational establishment.
Located on the western desert fringes of Cairo in a newly developed area called the Fifth Settlement, AUC's gleaming, multimillion-dollar campus is a world away from its historical home in the heart of Tahrir Square, and it boasts a level of corporate sponsorship that would tickle the imagination of most neoliberal economists, complete with a Pepsi gate, CIB fountain, and Mobinil tower. AUC students pay $17,000 a year in tuition -- more than eight times the annual income of the average Egyptian.
Last week, thousands of students united with university workers to launch a mass strike and on-campus sit-in to protest the administration's policies. The students' demands include the reversal of a 9 percent tuition hike, permanent student representation on the university's budget committee, and transparency in school finances. But among their chief concerns was an end to what they viewed as the university's exploitive practices regarding its workers, including security guards, janitors, and groundskeepers. They accuse the administration of underpaying staff, some of whom reportedly work without contracts, insurance, or benefits for up to 16 hours a day.
"There are two letters that are very important: 'HR.' The university takes these two letters to mean 'human resources,' but they completely forgot that it also stands for 'human rights,'" says Ahmed Ezzat, 20, vice president of the student union that organized the strike. "We are demanding the human rights of the people who work at this university," he says, opting to speak in Arabic in deference to the security guards gathered around him listening.
According to several, separate accounts, striking university workers were threatened by management and were told they would be docked three days' salary for every day they participated in the sit-in. "I am here because of worsening work conditions and less pay," says Mohammed, a 26-year-old security guard who refused to give his last name. "This happened for no reason. We are not to blame for the budget, yet we work harder every day."
The situation reached a critical turning point five days into the strike when the university's president, Lisa Anderson -- a former dean of faculty at Columbia University and co-chair of Human Rights Watch/Middle East -- agreed to engage in an open forum organized by the protesting students and workers. During the discussion, which began with workers first airing their grievances, Anderson's responses were generally viewed as evasive and noncommittal. Protests erupted when Anderson decided, without warning, to leave the forum after an hour and a half and walked back inside her office surrounded by a phalanx of security guards.
Students then decided to take down the American flag flying on campus and march with it before returning it, untarnished, to the administration. "It was decided that the American flag representing ... those values [of democracy, freedom of expression, and human rights] should be dismounted and returned to professor Lisa as a reminder that she does not respect them," the students later wrote in an email to the AUC community.
Three days later, the university administration announced it had reached a compromise on many of the protesters' demands, including greater budget transparency, the creation of an ad hoc committee with student, alumni, and faculty representatives taking part in tuition and budget decisions, a guaranteed five-day work week for custodial and landscape staff, greater worker protections, and a review of employee salary levels. Anderson also stressed that no university employees would be punished for taking part in the strike.
The students and workers have announced the strike and sit-in are over, but say they will continue to push for further reforms and make sure the administration fulfills its promises.
"Whoever feels something is wrong, they should just get up and say something about it," says Omar El Sabh, a 20-year old junior. "This is the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit around all of Egypt."