“The people want to overthrow the regime” is a statement initiated by the youth in the Tahreer Square in Cairo, becoming a slogan for every single individual rejecting oppression and repression in halls, organizations, schools, and houses. Teachers, school principles, parents, organizations’ directors, ministers, presidents, and even monarchs weren’t spared from the repercussions of this statement; this statement went as far as to inter shake the architecture of social, economical, political, and religious organizations. Even though the people safeguarding this statement were met with oppression, murder, and destruction, they didn’t back-off and continuously strived so that their demands are met. It is not surprising for the Arab people to face bullets, machine guns, and tear-gas with silent peaceful demonstrations and inner strength; the people were patient, enduring, and eventually succeeded in attaining their demands, utilizing every single peaceful methodology available including singing, dancing, painting, demonstrating, practicing insubordination, and enhancing solidarity. The message was clear: the people want to overthrow the regime.
Overthrowing this oppressive and totalitarian regime with all its intertwining structures stems from the need to abolish its structure, personas, legislations, legacy, and educational, health, social, economic, religious and political repercussions. The people want to overthrow the educational system because this system was built to safeguard the state and the state persons; the Arab educational system was linked directly to serve the objectives of the political system, thereby rendering a scenario in which the whole curriculum, collectively including books, teachers, and educational environments became a reflection of the desires of the authority in preserving itself and subduing the people. The educational system possesses a totalitarian characteristic, repudiating to provide space to the student and disallowing inquiries about numerous issues the people perceive as violations of freedom. It’s a system that doesn’t enhance and advance individual freedom, stemming from preserving Arab Nationalism and the Islamic Nation. In short, these systems limit liberalism that provides space for individual freedoms.
Voices criticizing the educational system rose after the 1967 defeat, especially by those who developed criticism theories, including Jalal Sadeq Al Athem and Hisham Sharabi, whose theories condemned religious though. In addition to being forcefully deported from their homeland, these activists were portrayed as traitors and apostates. And instead of being a place of production, the school became a venue for the reproduction of people, culture and knowledge serving to maintain the regime and subdue the people; and since the school became a place where people are raised to meet the needs and desires of the ruling regime, any activities that didn’t fit within this framework were prohibited and became a taboo; these regimes went as far as arresting every teacher, school principle, or student who dared to disobey these regulations. Additionally, any teacher who wanted to practice the profession of teaching had a acquire a statement from the security forces certifying that this person demonstrates “appropriate behavior” and is “suitable” to up-bring and educate “good citizens” in accordance with the regimes’ criteria.
The educational institution became a prohibited place to any party or organization that wanted to induce change in the system, and therefore it became impossible for civil society organizations to actively participate in the educational sector. To make matters even worse, not only teachers’ unions were prohibited in several countries, but also their leaders and founders were arrested and harassed; thereafter, these same regimes established alternative teachers’ unions on the government payroll to ensure totalitarian censorship on the action of these unions. Until recently, in some countries, any training teachers were going to undertake needed prior security approval; even though certain regulations were altered especially ones that are related to establishing civil society organizations in countries including Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq, the space is still limited, meaning that community participation under the slogan “Education is the Responsibility of Everyone” was a mere facet modeled by the desire of the governing regimes. In spite of the gloomy status, some civil society organizations were able to pave the way and establish networks and coalitions seeking to induce change; among these coalitions is the Arab Campaign for Education that was established as an initiative by the Teacher Creativity Center in Palestine. Fortunately for this specific coalition is that it was established with the surging of the “Arab Spring” and therefore the space for effective mobilization was present, and the demands were equivalent to a large extent with the desire of the people.
These coalitions and alliances are still deficient in developing to become a social educational movement for reasons including ambiguity in desired message, lack of sufficient experience and skills among members, absence of effective coordination, fear of clashing with regime, desire to preserve individual and local interests, absence of true democracy within organizations and unions, reliance on external funding, and insufficient exploration regarding internal resources. In these Arab revolutions lies the important lesson to these coalitions, and therefore there is need to scrutinize and analyze available input and popular phenomena and utilize all available resources accordingly. The energies and capabilities of all individuals should be invested collectively in the activities of the coalitions/networks; for instance, it was unexpected for Yemen female figures to participate actively in the demonstrations in Yemen. The campaigns organized by the coalition in Yemen about the importance of women education now serve as a fertile base to push this priority to the foreground and induce women participation, demanding for their educational rights. Incorporating the peoples’ needs in our slogans is very important, and should serve as a base to produce clear messages that fulfill the needs and desires of the people. The continuous months-length demonstrations and the increasing solidarity with the people reflect the correlation of the demands with the desires and needs of the people.
Another lesson learned from the Arab revolutions was that the participation of people in advocacy campaigns, providing space, and instilling collective trust in them; this would prove that these people would be creative in ruminating methods and lobbying strategies and success would, therefore, be in the pocket. The key to this success lies in demonstrating for the people that these slogans and messages fulfill their needs, desires, and aspirations. The Arab revolutions taught us that normal people are more capable than sophisticated people in determining common denominators among their demands, and are more capable to coordinate effectively since they possess fortified inner strength; and therefore they are the most capable to overthrow the prevailing educational system.
Any social movement that is meant to succeed needs to realize the importance of incorporating the messages of the people, parents, teachers, and all those who are active in the educational sector; farmers, and workers needs to be integrated too to improve the connection between these people, their interests, and attaining quality education. I don’t think organizations with external funding will be capable of inducing change; but what I do know is that launching a social educational movement that is capable of inducing change has to come from the people, and that this movement will never succeed if true democracy, fulfilling the aspirations and desires of the collective, doesn’t prevail.
Refaat Sabbah is the President of Alternatives International