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.