“A collapse of formal schooling in Egypt”: Interview with Hania Sobhy

Hania Sobhy Photo: Max Weber Stiftung under CC BY 4.0

Hania Sobhy
Photo: Max Weber Stiftung
under CC BY 4.0

Hania Sobhy is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Orient-Institut Beirut where she is writing up her research on Pro-Revolution Mobilization in Egyptian Elections 2012-2014. In 2012-2013, she was a postdoctoral Fellow with the EUME program of the Forum Transregionale Studien

During the conference “Inequality and Education”  she presented a paper about Educational Privatization and the Collapse of State Institutions under Mubarak”. She published recently an article about “Mafish Ta’lim: Why Egypt Ranked Last on Education” on the Mish ma32ool Blog.

What was surprising to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

I think that from a young age I wanted to know why things that seemed so wrong, unjust or counterproductive happened and continued to exist. At the age of 17 I wrote a letter to a famous newspaper columnist with a lengthy critique of what I understood as the policies, conflicts of interest and corruption that created the poor and increasingly marketized condition of education I was experiencing. He actually published portions of my letter over three days in his column. In a sense, I was interested in the incentives and power relations that sustained the status quo. I was also starting to wonder about what it is that creates a will to resist. I wanted to understand why most people took little action to contest these corrupt practices. Is it ‘cultural’ as some might argue? Is it a kind of ‘learned helplessness’ based on repeated experiences of the futility – and often emotional and physical violence – that are associated with such acts of contestation?

Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?

My academic formation really occurred during my Bachelor and Masters years at McGill University in Canada. Not only did I have professors in political science, anthropology and economics who taught us to read and think broadly, deeply and critically, but this was also a high-achieving environment where you were challenged to be your best, expected to develop your skills to the highest level in order to actively engage in the intellectual and cultural life of the classroom and university (there were no easy grades and most students actually read most of the assigned readings). This was where I had my first teaching experience, but where I also encountered the most important teacher in my life: my MA advisor, who continued to mentor and support me for a decade and a half after I left McGill, until he passed away a few weeks ago.

How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator?

The core of my project is that I study schools in order to get in-depth understanding of the style of governance of the late Mubarak era. I examine the varied daily manifestations of an informal de-facto privatization within the Egyptian public sector where citizens are effectively forced to pay for services that are meant to be available to them for free. This process has implied greater levels of emotional and corporal violence directed especially at the poor and working classes, who have little effective access to legal protection. I also emphasize the increasing exclusion of large sections of the middle classes from access to the protective and provision functions of the state. The other part of my work deconstructs the discourses deployed by the state, especially in official textbooks, to attempt to legitimize these conditions. I understand this – significantly unsuccessful – citizenship disciplining as focused on two axes. The first is promoting nationalist loyalty centered on a strong state and army protecting the nation from extremism and foreign threats. This supposedly secular nationalism is paradoxically infused with strong Islamist themes. The second axis is an attempt to nurture entrepreneurial charitable notions of citizenship, also legitimized through the deployment of Islamist themes, and presented as the only way to solve Egypt’s problems and achieve national ‘renaissance.’ An article I have written on this topic will be published in the journal Nations & Nationalism later this year. My current research project traces how these patterns have changed or intensified since 2011.

In your paper, presented at the conference “Inequality, Education and Social Power”, you analyzed the neoliberal tendencies in Egypt’s education system. What are, from your perspective, the main consequences for the Egyptian society? Do you see similar phenomena in other regions? 

One implication of the above set-up is that we have a situation where citizens are simultaneously attributing their exclusion – and ‘humiliation’ – to the state’s policies, while at the same time becoming less dependent on access to its services. This is a critical factor in considering whether or not to challenge state authorities. However, it is also a road to effective disengagement with public policy for different classes: Be it for those who have abandoned the public system altogether and resort only to the market, or those who must rely on religious charities to secure their basic needs.

I tried to explain what I described as a collapse of formal schooling in Egypt, where the quality of education is so low that officially more than one third (and some would say close to half) of students leave the 8-year basic education stage almost completely illiterate! Other families invest their hard-earned income into years of private tutoring – in school as well as university – only for graduates to be unemployed or grossly underemployed. I also alluded briefly to the impact of this dysfunction and marketization on the weakening of the school as a vehicle of nation-building and citizenship education.

Unfortunately, the situation in many countries in the global South is similar in terms of the increasingly securitized, marketized and charitable management of social services. I think what is more acute in Egypt is the extent to which state institutions have become dysfunctional and mired in complex and regularized forms of corruption and extralegal practices.

If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?

The themes I work on are relatively well studied in academic literature, whether they relate to the marketization of social services, disciplinary institutions, citizenship or nationalism. However, much of this literature is mainly applicable to the global North. Part of my work looks at how some of these conceptual and theoretical frameworks can be developed and expanded to deal with similar but still very distinct patterns in the global South and especially in the Middle East and how this in turn can enrich and nuance these frameworks and concepts. I think this FTS-MWS conference on “Inequality, Education and Social Power” was a positive step in creating a movement in this direction; and specifically in relation to education. The different contributions in the conference show, for example, that there is a need for consolidating transregional analysis on different aspects of the marketization of education and its relationship to different forms of inequality. Therefore, there is much that can be done to deepen and strengthen national, comparative and transregional research and collaboration on these themes.

Publications by Hania Sobhy:

Forthcoming 2015. Neoliberal Islamism, Textbooks and the Construction of Official Egyptian Nationalism from Mubarak to Sisi. Nations & Nationalism 21(4): tbd.

2014. Tell the teacher: I see you, I thank you. Mada Masr Online Newspaper. 1 July.

Ÿ2012. The De-Facto Privatization of Secondary Education in Egypt. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 42 (1): 47-67.

Ÿ2009 [2011]. Amr Khaled and Young Muslim Elites: Islamism and the Consolidation of Mainstream Muslim Piety in Egypt. In Cairo Contested: Governance, Urban Space and Global Modernity, edited by Diane Singerman. Pp. 415- 454. Cairo: American University Press.


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About Stefanie Rentsch

Dr. Stefanie Rentsch ist wissenschaftliche Referentin am Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin und leitet dort den Bereich Publikationen und Öffentlichkeitsarbeit. Blogs: trafo.hypotheses.org, academies.hypotheses.org Stefanie Rentsch is head of publications and communication at the Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin. Blogs: trafo.hypotheses.org, academies.hypotheses.org

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