Dear Sisi, it is time to talk illiteracy

Dear Sisi, it is time to talk illiteracy

by Abdallah Schleifer

Mr. President, I know that you and other Arab leaders like yourself are committed to a struggle against terrorism; and against the extremist groups engaged in this terrorism in the name of religion that they have perverted in order to justify their atrocities.

You must be deeply disturbed that thousands, perhaps by now tens of thousands, of marginalized young Muslims have left their homes in the Arab and Muslim world, in Europe, the UK and even America to join ISIS and its affiliates, looking for a cause that transcends their condition and provides meaning to their lives.

There are many forms of marginality and that includes the condition of tens of thousands of young graduates of Egyptian universities who cannot find jobs here or abroad. Your major public works projects –the 2nd Suez Canal and the Million Affordable Homes – will generate work for unemployed construction workers, electricians, house painters and plumbers, but not for the vast ranks of unemployed university graduates.

Adult illiteracy

So consider this – adult illiteracy remains well over 20 percent of the population in Egypt and it is one of the worst scourges that undermines morale, development and the ability to respond to innovation. It breeds indifference. Illiteracy not only ranks alongside corruption as one of the two worst scourges of Egyptian society but it is intimately connected to corruption.

Billions of Egyptian Pounds have been spent by a various administrations in government programs over the decades yet illiteracy has never been eradicated and even using self-serving official statistics, it has barely kept pace with the natural growth of the population.

Literacy campaigns having even regressed since the beginning of the 20 century, when the eradication of illiteracy was seen as a great moral cause to redeem the nation. So it would be seen today if you, as president issue a call to the educated youth to come to the aid of their nation, to enroll it a genuine revolutionary cause and to enlist in the Literacy Youth Brigades.

Pay will be at a subsistence level for a single person at 600 Egyptian Pounds (EGP) per graduate. And at the end of their two year enrollment they will also have acquired the experience of professional work, and for some a desire to take up teaching in the many schools that you, Mr. President, are planning to build or restore throughout the country.

Proven educational technology
The brigades would employ a proven educational technology known as the Abjad Adult Education System developed over a decade by a British Muslim graduate from Oxford University who lived in Egypt for many years.

This system would best be administered by an independent commission headed by a non- governmental figure dedicated to community service with a proven track record, known to you and trusted by you. Be they civilian or military, such people do exist in this great country and from their ranks you would select the director.

The Abjad System was tested in 2011 with the support of Sheikh Ali Goumaa’s Masr el-Khair charitable foundation – with 6,000 illiterate adults taught at night in schools and other community centers equipped with only a computer per class and a minimum set of teaching materials for each student. So the centers for this adult education already exist – in schools, and, if necessary, other community centers

The computer is essential for two reasons; the computer runs the Abjad System’s CD Rom program which provides direction for both students and teacher in using the system which is based on each student using an Abjad kit consisting of all the individual letters of the Arabic alphabet that can form every combination for any word, assembled and re-assembled over and over again. This way the adult student is not memorizing words to pass a test and secure a certificate – he is producing words and learns how to read and write in the process. As for the kit, it can be used over and over again.

Essential for the high morale
The computer is also essential for the high morale that motivated the adults who enrolled in the testing of the Abjad System because they realized for themselves on the very first day - and could tell friends and family after that very first day - that they were learning how to use a computer. Learning how to use a computer is far more morale- boosting than for an adult to admit he is learning how to read and write. And this also hold out the realistic prospect that the student will not just qualify for a certificate of literacy but actually continue on his own to read, to write and if available, which is increasingly the case, be able to use a low-cost computer for its most basic functions of reading and writing.

There are an estimated minimum of 17 million adult illiterates in Egypt. The mission of the Literacy Youth Brigades is to eliminate illiteracy in two years. Based on proven results—when administered without the usual bureaucratic sabotage of non-governmental or private sector programs, the success rate for the tests of adults in Misr el-Kheir funded Abjad system was a stunning 90 percent.

59,000 university educated youth enlisted in the Youth Brigades can all be trained over staggered two day periods by 500 experienced kindergarten teachers, who already received training in the 2011 Misr el-Kheir funded test. That means all 59,000 could receive this training in a period running from only 30 to 45 days. They will then be assigned to 59,000 existing classrooms with at least one computer per classroom.

Your appeal, Mr. President to the patriotic instincts of unemployed or barely employed university educated youth to enlist in the Youth Brigades for two years of service in a war against illiteracy can be a turning point, both in the immediate need to undermine the appeal of extremism and the long term development of Egypt.


Cross published on Al Arabiya News and TAM with permission of the author.

Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.


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