In Cairo, schools reopen as uncertainty remains

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; A01

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. 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 Hosni 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.

Ahmed Nagib, leader of the opposition Ghad Party, recalls one art class final that required students to create election banners for the ruling party. "Whenever they mention government at all, it's just about how Mubarak has kept the country strong," Nagib said.

After writing its own textbooks for years, the government let private publishers bid after 2006. But officials have tended to purchase only the cheapest volumes and quality hasn't improved, according to Achmed Bedier, general manager of Dar El Shorouk Publishing.

"It's not like buying light bulbs," said Bedier. "We want to bring these books up to the quality you see in Europe and the United States."

The Ministry of Education did not respond to a request for an interview.

'You can feel human'

At Dar El Tarbiah, Arabic teacher Magda Whba reworked her lesson plan to fit the new reality. In a classroom of high plaster walls and worn pine floors, she wrote the name of a poem on a whiteboard, "How Much Do You Complain?," an appreciation of life by Ilya Abu Madi.

"I picked it special," said Whba, her high heels echoing on the floor, her bracelets jangling with every gesture. She wore a scarf over her hair. "I want to tell [the students] that you must now be happy. Now you can feel human."

Not all schools were as quick to embrace the new order. Not one of four regular government schools visited Sunday would let visitors in to talk to teachers or students.

A man who identified himself as the principal of the El Baheya El Borhaneya school near the presidential palace said through the front gate that he was instructed not to discuss school policy with outsiders. "Things may have changed, but we haven't been told to do anything different," he said.

Outside Zamalek Girls College, a green Volkswagen van full of middle and high school students waited to pull into traffic. The revolution came up a few times during the students' first day back, they said, but not often and not favorably.

"Mostly we talked about the negative points," said Nourhan Salim, 17. The main one was the insecurity residents feel in the streets, she said, as well as continuing union protests.

A middle school student in the back row, who declined to give her name, said most of her teachers also talked about the downside of Mubarak's fall. She said she didn't agree.

"I think things will get better now," she said. "God willing."

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