In Cairo, schools reopen as uncertainty remains

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 7:04 AM

CAIRO - Fatema Salah said her students had never sung the Egyptian national anthem quite the way they did Sunday, the first day back to school for most Cairo pupils. Before, they shuffled through the morning ritual, heads down and sleepy. This time, standing in the school's shady courtyard for the first time since the revolution, they belted it out.

"Today, everybody sang loud," said Salah, principal of the Dar El Tarbiah School, a secondary school in central Cairo. "It was real. Many of them were in [Tahrir] Square themselves. They are very proud."

But with the pride, nervousness remained. Nearly half of Salah's students were absent, and across the city thousands of families ignored the reopening of school, which had been anticipated as a step toward post-revolution normality.

On Monday, state television announced that ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his family had been banned from foreign travel, and their funds were being impounded, wire services reported. But new clashes over the weekend between protesters and the military renewed the sense of uncertainty in the Egyptian capital.

"Parents are still scared," Salah said. Many students were stranded, she said, because the government asked schools not to run buses through the city. "There are not enough police on the streets."

At Salah's school, the students who made it to class found the day a mix of back-to-the-books hustle and revolutionary fervor. Teachers raced to make up for a month of lost instruction, but the toppling of Mubarak came up in every class.

"We've been talking about the revolution all day," said Ahmed Younes, 16. "We never used to talk about politics at all."

Dar El Tarbiah is one of the many private schools in Cairo that blend the government curriculum (including mandated social sciences, Arabic and religion classes) with more advanced subjects. Salah said she got no guidance from the Ministry of Education on what to teach about recent events, if anything.

So she encouraged her teachers to embrace the news of the day, even though they are still teaching with textbooks that have long chapters glorifying the achievements of Mubarak and his party.

"Those will change, but it will take time," Salah said.

Reformers hope the next revolution will be in Egypt's antiquated system of schools, dozens of which are named for the former president or members of his family. A new education minister was named last week, and advocates are pushing for a complete curriculum overhaul.

Egypt launched an attempt to modernize the curriculum in 2006, but observers say schools largely remain incompetent and fawning.

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