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Egypt - History & Background

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceEgypt - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education

HISTORY & BACKGROUND


The Arab Republic of Egypt is situated at the crossroads between Europe and the Orient and between North Africa and southwest Asia. Egypt controls both the Sinai Peninsula, the only land bridge between Africa and the remainder of the Eastern Hemisphere, and the Suez Canal, the shortest sea link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean forms the northern boundary, on the east is Israel and the Gaza strip, on the south is Sudan, and on the west is Libya.

Approximately the size of Texas and New Mexico combined, Egypt occupies 1,001,494 square kilometers with 995,450 square kilometers of land area and 6,000 square kilometers of water. The land is mostly a vast desert plateau interrupted by the narrow green ribbon of the Nile Valley and delta. The longest river in the world, the Nile, flows 1600 kilometers through Egypt northward from the Egypt-Sudanese border to the Mediterranean Sea.

Egyptian economy is based on its natural resources: petroleum, natural gas, and several minerals. There are no permanent pastures, forests, or woodlands. Dependence on food imports is heavy. Almost all large-scale industry is in the public domain. Manufacturing produces mainly consumer goods, but also some iron, steel, aluminum, and cement. Economic diversity began in 1960 with industrialization efforts, development of oil revenues, tourism, Suez Canal income, and remittances from expatriates working in various Arab countries.

The private sector, dominated by food processing and textiles, is comprised of 150,000 small and medium businesses. Most Egyptians work for mini-firms; nearly 100 percent of the non-agricultural private enterprises have fewer than 50 employees, most have fewer than 10 and many have fewer than 4. Egypt ranks fourth in the world on the list of countries implementing privatization programs. In 1999, the economic picture turned rosy with a sustained growth rate of five percent, inflation below four percent, a budget deficit of approximately one percent of GDP, and foreign revenues of 18 billion, covering about 14 months worth of imports.

Egypt is a (limited) multiparty socialist state based on Islamic law. Suffrage is universal and compulsory. Politically, Egypt is divided into governorates (provinces) each subdivided into districts, which are further subdivided into communes. The governors heading each governate administer the plans and operation of the schools. The Eastern Hamitic stock (Egyptians, Bedouins, and Berbers) comprises 99 percent of the population with Greeks, Nubians, Armenians, and other Europeans (primarily Italians and French) at less than one percent. The Hamitic people are descendents of the ancient Egyptians. Islam is the religion of 94 percent of Egyptians with Sunni Muslims in the majority; Coptic Christians and others make up the remaining six percent.

The population is concentrated in the Nile Valley and delta, an area roughly the size of Vermont, where approximately 95 percent of the population is packed into 5 percent of the country. Some 45.1 percent of Egyptians live in urban areas; approximately 2.3 million were living abroad in 1997. In 1995, the workforce numbered 16.9 million; in 1999, it had grown to 19.0 million. Approximately 40 percent of the labor force is engaged in agriculture, 38 percent in services, and 22 percent in industry. Unemployment is high; in 1999, the unemployment rate was estimated to be 11.8 percent. The population explosion is staggering. The population of 49 million in 1985 expanded beyond 68 million in 2000, an increase of more than 105,000 people per month. More than one-third of the population was under the age of 15 in 2000. The population growth rate has slowly declined from 2.8 percent in 1986 to 2.1 percent in 1999.

In 1992, an estimated 9 percent of the children under the age of five were malnourished. Estimates in the late 1990s reported that 52 percent of school children suffered from anemia and 20 percent from vitamin and protein deficiency. Poverty estimates vary; government statistics show 23 percent of Egyptian households to be below (the very low) poverty line in 1999. The consensus of independent observers is that the rate is closer to 35 percent. Arabic is the official language. Many variations of vernacular Arabic are spoken and the people in the Aswan region speak Nubian. The Coptic language spoken in the middle regions is the last stage of ancient Egyptian—no longer spoken but still used in the Bohairic dialect for liturgical purposes.

Egyptian history dates back more than 7,000 years. In the period between 6000 and 2686 B.C., hunters and gatherers settled along the banks of the Nile and evolved into settled, subsistence agriculturists. Written language, religion, and institutions developed. The unification of Upper (Red Land) Egypt and Lower (Black Land) Egypt in the third millennium B.C. is considered by Egyptians to be the "First Time" or the creation of the universe. Unification marked the beginning of the Pharaonic Age. The monuments that remain give testimony to the administrative and religious structures developed in that era. Higher education in ancient Egypt took place in the temples where sciences such as physics, astronomy, solid geometry, geography, mathematics, measurements, and medicine were taught as well as ethics, music, painting, drawing, sculpture, etc. Plato attended the University of "Eon" in Cairo.

The Pyramid Age lasted for five centuries and was followed by a long history of invasions. A Persian invasion overthrew the last Pharaoh in 525 B.C., and Persians ruled intermittently until 333 B.C. when Alexander the Great arrived, became the "king" of Egypt and founded Alexandria. Direct and exploitive Roman rule began in 30 B.C. upon the death of Cleopatra, lasting six centuries until 640 A.D. The Arab conquest of Egypt (639-641) eventually transformed a predominately Christian society into a Muslim country in which the Arabic language and culture were widely adopted. A number of dynasties ruled Egypt between 868 and 1260. In 1250, Turkish tribes crossed the borders eventually converting to Islam and controlling Egypt until 1517 when the Ottomans added Egypt to their empire. A dim period followed, lasting more than five centuries under the Mamluk and Turkish rules (1250 to 1798) and education, as with all aspects of life, stagnated and diminished. Napoleon's brief invasion (1798-1801) was accompanied by a commission of scholars and scientists sent to investigate every aspect of life in Egypt. Their report was later to become a valuable historic record. Ottoman pasha Muhammad Ali governed Egypt between 1805 and 1848 and initiated a dual system of education; one for children of the masses who attended traditional Islamic schools and the other for the elite civil servants and technicians who studied a broader range of subjects, generally of western origin.

Muhammad Ali established higher education military schools, a marine school, schools of medicine, pharmacology, veterinary medicine, engineering metallurgy, arts, irrigation, agriculture, industrial chemistry, gynecology and obstetrics, languages, accountancy, and administration during the first three decades of the 1800s. Turkey and other European countries forced Egypt to scale back education and military forces in 1841. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 highlighted Egypt's strategic geographic importance and paved the way for foreign intervention and domination. A 40-year British "protectorate," beginning in 1882 and lasting until 1922, continued the social and economic stratification of the society and the dual education system. Colonization brought with it the imposition of non-Egyptian models of schooling including education elitism. Education for the masses ("education for serfdom") was either nonexistent or limited to low-level subsistence activities. In the 25 years between 1882 and 1907, the Egyptian population grew from 7 to 11 million, but few new schools were founded. When independence came in 1922, more than 95 percent of the Egyptian population was illiterate.

Independence brought a monarchy with a multiparty parliamentary government system, but real power remained with the British and education remained elitist. It wasn't until Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in 1954 that serious efforts to expand Egyptian education began. Islamic values were a cornerstone of this education. The government began appointing the functionaries of mosques and Islamic religious schools while simultaneously expanding secular education. Five-year plans for 1961-1965 and 1966-1970 included as goals the education of the masses and guaranteed government employment for all higher education graduates. Hampered by three wars in 15 years, only modest educational gains were made. Nasser's era was one of socialism, planning, Arab nationalism, and the rise of Islamic radicalism. Upon Nasser's death, Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) moved to open and liberalize economic and political participation. His economic Open Door policy (infitah) ended (de facto) the college graduate hiring requirement and, by the mid-1980s, unemployment among university graduates was estimated to be as high as 30 percent. Sadat continued Nasser's educational patterns. Comprehensive national planning lapsed, but higher education was flooded with students, and more than a dozen universities or branches opened in the 1970s accompanied by mass migration of professors to higher salaries in other Arab countries.

Hosni Mubarak revived national planning. The developmental strategies of the first (1982-1987) plan included increasing manpower productivity through training and educational programs. Under this plan, student enrollments increased 27 percent; university enrollments, 6 percent; and the number of schools, 14 percent. A major goal of a 1988-1992 National Plan was to promote education, especially technical education, to produce the manpower resources needed for the expanding economy. The 1989 Educational Development Plan was designed to "equip the populace to value human rights, to grow mentally, physically, and spiritually, and to develop higher rational abilities; create a productive society by providing highly skilled and educated citizens; achieve the total development of individuals—economically, socially, and culturally—by integrating knowledge with attitudes and aspiration; and prepare a generation of scientists." The comprehensive plan proposed expansion of all educational levels, life-long education, and self education; educational reform, including coordination among educational sectors; eradication of illiteracy; continuous educational planning; educational research; variety in educational delivery systems; family participation in the education process; the separation of wages from college degrees; and improved dissemination of educational information and practices.

The succession of post-revolution leaders: Nasser (Arab Socialism), Sadat (Open Door), and Mubarak (Grand Revival) each established new national social and economic development goals, thereby requiring shifts in the direction of the educational system. The educational policies of the three national leaders, however, shared important common themes—they all supported universal education and the introduction of technological skills into society through the educational system.

The 1980s and 1990s saw Islamic acts of violence with assassinations of top government officials and security officers, members of the Coptic Christian minority, writers, and foreign tourists "in a relentless murderous cycle." The Society of the Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1928, became the major Islamic fundamentalist movement and has remained so. Essentially, the Brotherhood is an Islamic protest movement against change and modernity, government corruption, social and economic injustice, and foreign influence. With branches in other Arab countries, it comes close to being a transnational, pan-Islamic movement. In the mid-1990s, the government attempted to rid the educational system of Islamic influences by transferring hundreds of teachers to administrative posts, removing Islamic tracts from library shelves, and banning the imposition of veiling on young schoolgirls. The costs of three wars in fifteen years (1956 Suez War, 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War, and the 1969-1970 war of attrition) followed by world recession, drops in oil prices, and an exploding population strained resources for Egypt's massive educational efforts. The picture is reversing in the new millennium due to the rise of oil prices in 1999 and improved fiscal management.

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