Education, freedoms, scientific research and building the future

Ahmed El-Sayed Al-Naggar , Friday 31 Oct 2014

Egypt must embrace its youth as long as their political and cultural activities are peaceful, for no matter how harsh their criticisms are of public policies, the future depends on them

The honourable Magdi Al-Agati, deputy chairman of the State Council and head of the legislative division there, rejected draft legislation presented by the government to the Council because it ferociously assaults the independence of universities.

The rejected draft law gave license to university presidents to terminate faculty members without referral to a disciplinary committee based on the former’s judgment whether the latter participated in “unrest” or carried weapons. The draft is an example of how to spark crises and tension for no good reason. Unrest and carrying arms do not require autocratic powers in the hands of the university president because general laws and disciplinary committees are sufficient in punishing such actions.

What is truly surprising is that such a controversial law was presented at a time when attempts are underway to revise the protest law and given how much tension this issue has sparked among students especially. This law, which in reality restricts the freedom to protest, has put many peaceful freedom-aspiring students in confrontation with political powers. Instead of isolating violent Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups, holding them accountable by applying stiff general laws against violence, the draft law clumped together peaceful demonstrations and violent protests by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists who seek to disrupt classes using force. It would be wiser to revise and amend the protest law instead of adding more fuel to the fire with the draconian law that the Council rejected.

The start of the academic year means the presence of large assemblies of youth in all universities, making it easier to organise group action such as demonstrations. Thus, the solution should be to separate peaceful demonstrators from violent ones who are religious fanatics by amending the protest law, especially since there is wide consensus among young political activists about the need to amend the law based on suggestions of the National Council for Human Rights.

The major flaw with the protest law is extreme penalties disproportionate to the offence. Article 10 gives the minister of interior or police chief the right to turn down, relocate or postpone demonstration permits if there is intelligence that the protest will threaten security and peace. This article puts peaceful demonstrations in the hands of the interior ministry and denies peaceful dissent as a right, requiring notification of the authorities according to certain regulations.

Article 11 pertaining to the right of the police to disperse a protest if it is no longer peaceful does not require the presence of a neutral party that decides if the protest is no longer peaceful. Deferring to a delegate of a judge only happens after the police decide the protest has breached the law and forces begin to respond through different means. It would be better if this delegate were present from the start to decide whether the protest is no longer peaceful, thus giving the police the right to respond within the law. After two revolutions in Egypt demanding freedom, human dignity, equality and democracy, all legislative and executive actions must respect these principles and demands.

The state must be especially open-minded about youth practicing peaceful opposition and their right to peaceful protest. Youth are enthusiastic. Churchill said if one is not a radical in youth then he is heartless, and if he is not conservative in age then he is mindless. The state must be more accepting in dealing with opposition in general, and from the youth especially.

The democratic environment in academia is pivotal in raising and promoting youth involvement in national issues and building the future. At the same time, it is vital for developing the education process itself and transforming it into a true tool for enlightenment and learning life skills, as well as skills pertaining to natural and applied sciences and humanities. No nation has made progress without science and focus on disseminating education, scientific research and development and applying the results to all sectors of the economy. This interest should be more than just moral and quantitative support, but primarily by spending on education and research and development (R&D), and linking research institutes with industry, agriculture and services sectors.

Public spending on education is the main booster for educating the poor and middle class as a right in a state that is eager to achieve progress, enlightenment and development. Most state revenues come from natural resources such as oil, gas, quarries, the Suez Canal, the High Dam and other older projects built by previous generations and governments. They also come from direct and indirect taxes mostly paid by the middle and poor classes.

In the 2014/2015 state budget, public spending on education will rise LE94.4 billion or 3.9 percent of GDP, compared to 4.1 percent in the previous fiscal year. This is a drop in education spending that contradicts all general outlooks to develop education as a pillar for progress in Egypt, and thus should be addressed effectively in the coming phase.

Article 19 of the new constitution commits the state to spend no less than four percent of GDP on pre-college education; Article 21 commits the state to spend no less than two percent of GDP on college education while gradually increasing to reach global standards. The continuous decline of public spending on education under Mubarak was part of the state’s plan to clear the way for the private sector “business” of education in Egypt. Public spending on education in the last budget under Mubarak 2010/2011 was LE48.7 billion, or 3.5 percent of GDP, and 11.8 percent of public spending altogether for that year. In 2009/2010, public spending on education was LE41.7 billion or 3.5 percent of GDP compared to LE39.9 billion in 2008/2009 or 3.8 percent of GDP for that year.

Accordingly, Egypt is among the countries spending the lowest on education worldwide. World Bank figures show that the average rate of public spending on education worldwide came to 4.6 percent of GDP in 2010; 5.5 percent in the Eurozone; and 4.4 percent of GDP in middle income states. The majority of Arab states were also ahead of Egypt under Mubarak. Public spending on education in Tunisia and Algeria was 6.3 percent and 5.4 percent of GDP, respectively, in 2010. In developing Cuba, under US sanctions, it was 13.4 percent of GDP, which made its education indices similar to wealthy advanced industrial states. The rate in the US is 5.5 percent and 5.4 percent in the UK.

This low level of spending on education in Egypt was contrary to the claim by Mubarak’s regime of its desire and “plan” to end illiteracy and raise and develop education standards. Today, these rates are inconsistent with the belief that education is the gateway to Egypt’s future.

We must reconsider public spending on education to improve its quality, raise the standards of graduates, enable the poor and lower middle class to give their children a good education, and end illiteracy, which is a disgrace for the world’s oldest nation, or mother of all nations. Improving education and overhauling it not only requires raising public spending on this sector, but much more, by developing the elements of the education process in terms of syllabi, faculty, laboratories, tools, facilities and activities.

The education process plays a vital role in training graduates to contribute to scientific R&D, which when funded impacts the economy because most production is the outcome of applying R&D through patents.

The new constitution commendably allocated one percent of GDP to scientific research, but this quota was not applied to the state’s general budget. Average spending on scientific R&D worldwide during 2005-2010 was 2.2 percent of GDP; 3.5 percent in Japan; 2.8 percent in the US; 4.3 percent in the Zionist entity; 2.8 percent in Germany; 1.5 percent in China; 0.64 in Morocco; 1.1 percent in Tunisia; and 0.93 percent in South Africa.

It is only natural, then, that Egypt’s high-tech exports in 2010 only came to $96 million, while Morocco’s exports in this field were $897 million, $611 million in Tunisia, $8 billion in the Zionist entity, $406 billion in China, $145.5 billion in the US, $158.5 billion in Germany, $122 billion in Japan and $1.4 billion in South Africa.

As a result of technological backwardness, Egypt now relies on foreign companies for oil and gas prospecting and drilling, as well as mining for gold and other mineral ores. It pays out more than half its reserves of these natural resources. The funds and assets leaving Egypt as a result have become a colossal mechanism depleting the national wealth. It is certain that raising the prominence of scientific R&D, pre-college and college education by all means, and linking research results with the production sector, would save a large portion of the funds and resources foreign companies take from primary resource sectors in Egypt. Since R&D flourishes and advances in an environment of freedom, Egypt must openly embrace its youth as long as their political and cultural activities are peaceful, and no matter how harsh their criticism is of public policies.

We must remember that societies emerge from stagnation and develop primarily through critical insights that present alternatives and open doors to the future.

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