Egypt is currently undertaking a major reform of its education system. By declaring the year 2019 to be the Year of Education, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has clearly underlined the importance of such an initiative as one of Egypt’s top priorities for building a stable and productive society.
In that regard, wisdom prevailed among the drafters of the Egyptian Constitution when they emphasised the importance of education by incorporating seven articles, 19 to 25, mainly dealing with the state’s obligation to support the right of every citizen to education, notably by providing free education, encouraging technical education and scientific research, and eliminating illiteracy.
To achieve these goals, the Constitution says that the state must allocate seven per cent of total national product to spending on education and gradually increase this so that it corresponds to international standards.
This approach was based on the realisation that education has become an essential component in the building of a successful society based on knowledge, ingenuity, non-discrimination, tolerance and moral values.
Let us also remember that education is a part of the Arab and Muslim tradition. The first verses of the Quran start with the words “read in the name of God.”
This underlines the importance of reading for every Muslim, since education can contribute to making a better world where people live together in harmony.
Moreover, Taha Hussein, one of Egypt’s most prominent modern writers and thinkers, believed that education was as essential to human development as air and water were to the body. He was a great proponent of free education, helping to make it available to all.
Throughout history, the Arab contribution to knowledge through education has been enormous. Western culture was influenced by Arab knowledge in numerous fields such as mathematics, chemistry, astronomy and architecture, for example.
Another important aspect of education relates to the Arabic language, which binds the Arabs together and is the basis of their common culture.
The importance of the Arabic language is further derived from the fact that it is the language of the Quran. It thus binds together 1.3 billion people around the world for whom this is their holy book, in addition to other millions who belong to Arab culture and speak the Arabic language.
On the international level, the Arabic language has since 1974 been one of six official languages of the United Nations.
Arabic has become one of the most sought-after languages in Western academic institutions today in response to a public desire to understand that language and to master it.
However, in spite of its glorious past history, the Arab world faces major challenges relating to knowledge and education today. The World Bank Annual Report on Education in the Middle East and North Africa issued last November referred to obstacles and challenges facing education in the Arab region, along with growing opportunities for reform. In addition, the Arab Human Development Reports published by the United Nations have frequently described the knowledge and quality gap in education in the Arab world.
They have referred to the enormous rate of illiteracy in the Arab world, unfortunately with a particularly high rate among women.
On the other hand, the Arab region has the highest proportion of young people in the world. This underlines the importance of addressing the problems of education and illiteracy.
At an Arab regional conference held under the auspices of UNESCO recently, it was recommended that in order to overcome the illiteracy problem a variety of methods and tools could be adopted through schools and the media, seminars and meetings, the creation of libraries, the wider use of children’s books and the translation of educational materials.
In such a wide field, both UNESCO and ALESCO, the Arab organisation concerned with education, have vital roles to play.
I strongly support the idea of giving the reform of education top priority in Egypt today. It should be supported financially to enable educational institutions to effectively perform their roles.
The rights to education, equal opportunity and non-discrimination must be recognised and implemented. The levels of education and teaching should be improved.
Any new system of education should focus on teaching students the skills they need to enter the labour market. It should also help students to be more creative and innovative and prepare them to deal with the latest scientific and technological developments.
In this context, the Egyptian professional expatriates who met recently at a conference in Hurghada could provide useful guidance and advice.
In carrying out reform of its education system, Egypt is reaching out to the experience of other countries, including Japan.
However, Egypt remains aware that any foreign system of education must be adapted to local needs and the local environment. It also must be consistent with the values of the society and with its culture and heritage.
Finally, together with educational reform, Egyptian efforts should continue to focus on promoting cultural moderation and tolerance, rejecting extremist ideas and preserving human values and religious beliefs. This is the roadmap for an enlightened and stable society.
* The writer is a former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Education a priority