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Mini protests in a big revolution

Teenage students impacted by world economic problems decide, through a vote, to 'occupy' their schools

Dahlia Ferrer, Friday 14 Oct 2011
School wall in Crete
School wall in Crete (Photo: Dahlia Ferrer)
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School children are complaining: The are never enough teachers at any given school, because when one long-standing job holder retires, they are not replaced. Students are instead grouped into larger and larger classes, so they need private tutoring in order to pass the tough exams required for university entrance, whose grading and procedures are changing in worrying ways.

Students do not even have the books they need in time for the start of term. And teachers too are complaining: their salaries are so low they must practise private tutoring to support their families. But so are the personnel at understaffed hospitals, air-traffic controllers; transportation strikes in general render life impossible for the majority…

But this is not Egypt we are talking about; it is Greece.

***

There was a two-hour delay in the flight from Cairo to Athens on Sunday because of a partial strike by air-traffic controllers, and later in the week travellers were indefinitely delayed for the same reason.

Ahram Online asked to one secondary-school students what their demands were, “Why are you protesting?”

Odysseus(abright, well-spoken teenage who grew up on the Greek island of Crete) responded, “We do this every year!” He nodded, giving a half-chuckle. “We have general demands.” Ody, as he is known to his friends, took the time to teach me the word katalipsi (occupation): “We are occupying our school. It’s very easy. We meet, vote – and there you go. Someone comes and stands at the gate with a key and doesn’t let any of the teachers in. The kids who voted for the occupation have to stay on campus until 11 am or so.” 

Later on at the same “occupied” school in Heraklion, Crete, I got to ask the students simple questions, another student – speaking on condition of anonymity – echoed Ody’s words: “general demands” include having all of (instead of only eight) out of their 15 textbooks.

He soon introduced me to a teacher, Tania Christoforatou, who seemed to have good rapport with the protesters. “Many don’t think the protest will accomplish anything. Who will hear them from here? They won’t get what they want this way.”

But is there anything the teachers want out of this?

“I’ve had Euro 400 taken out of my pay cheque,” she said, sighing – austerity measures forced on civil servants everywhere.

At this point the student who introduced me to Christoforatou interrupted to explain that in Greece student protests have a long history; they both spoke with admiration and sadness about the student uprising against the regime in 1973. One female student (Labrina Michalak) described with wide eyes how the tanks bulldozed over the university gate, killing protesters.

But how do you all feel about what is happening in the world today?

“The TV here doesn’t keep us updated on what’s really going on in other countries,” Michalak said. Another student added, “We’re sick of hearing about Libya,” rolling her eyes as she spoke. “Only talk major tragedies are reported.”

Is the media state-owned or private? Do you think that the media portrays what’s going on in Greece accurately?

“Private,” the students answered, but owned by very wealthy people allied with the government.

Vicky Kalaitzaki, another student, stated that, while 100 first- and second-year students supported the occupation, only nine refused to participate.

The key master, Irene Papadaki, who is in charge of letting people into campus, said she was disappointed with students who did not live up to their duty to participate.

***

The estimated average wage of an Egyptian teacher is LE750 ($125), one of the lowest for skilled labour in the public sector. The minimum for a not-poor standard of living in Egypt (much lower than in Europe) is the salary of senior teachers: LE1,250LE ($210). A not-poor standard of living in Greece requires 900 euro ($1,220); after the austerity measures teachers receive 1,600 euro ($2,180).

The difference is astonishing and only highlights the plight of Egypt’s educational system. For 25 years in Egypt students have not been receiving any books at all before the start of the school year – even at very expensive private schools. Some 66 per cent of children in Egypt receive private tutoring just to ensure they pass to the next grade.

The demands in Greece are are the same as in Egypt. Egyptians struggle for fundamental necessities: the purging of administrative posts of corrupt cronies of the former regime, a minimum wage of LE1,200 (though some are calling for LE3,000), the bonus promised to all public-sector employees and general improvements in public schools. Although some parents have protested schools closing down during strikes, for the most part Egyptian students and parents support the teachers’ strikes.

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