When the youth of Tahrir Square overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February of 2011, the entire world celebrated with them. It was a huge victory for freedom, democracy, and hope. It was also a huge victory for Facebook, Twitter, and Google, as social media were touted as the “free press” of the revolution. They could be, the world now saw, not only the media of capitalism and idle chatter, but of social uplift as well. And the events of the last three years can’t diminish any of that.
What, then, happened that now, nearly three years later, Egypt is in the throes of political repression perhaps worse than that under Mubarak—with many Egyptians seeming to cheer it on—and Syria is in a brutal civil war with no organized opposition? Why is it that other countries can have revolutions and gradually move on to democracy from there, but not the Arab nations? What is it about the Arab world that seems to make democracy and organized opposition to authoritarianism so difficult?
I taught university-level English in Syria for five years. I also “married into” Egypt, and happened to be in both countries when their revolutions started. The problems and solutions for both countries, I can tell you, are only superficially political. Part of the problem is cultural. Arab civilization remained largely tribal long after much of the world had developed more sophisticated social and legal systems. Even after the advent of Islam, with its laws and endorsement of political leadership and non-tribal communal structures, much of the Arab world remained nomadic, tribal, and fiercely individualistic. All this has contributed to a political culture of familial nepotism and unwillingness to compromise today.
But the cultural argument can tell only part of the story at best. The deepest roots of the problems are more contemporary. Both countries have self-consciously developed educational systems that stifle the critical skills necessary for democracy to take place. Critical Thinking, a cornerstone of sustainable education—is a cornerstone of freedom, too. In particular, citizens in a democracy need to be able to:
critically judge what leaders and media tell, and be able to detect bias in them when applicable;
ascertain the costs and benefits of their various social and political options, form nuanced opinions from that awareness, and be willing to compromise;
and have an awareness of how ideas, actions, and organization are produced, and be able to visualize the steps that must be taken to produce a certain result.
These and other critical skills—which we in western industrialized democracies take for granted—are systematically undermined in the curricula of most Arab nations’ educational systems, which stress memorization at the cost of understanding and analysis. The result is a populace virtually paralyzed in the face of authority. I would regularly hear my Syrian students unquestioningly parrot the claims made in advertisements or on the news. It would never occur to them to question something they saw in print, unless it specifically countered a pre-established belief they had been taught—perhaps religious or political—in which case it was simply wrong; there was no possibility of opinion, compromise or convincing.
The problem is exacerbated by the near absence of history and reading in Arab curricula. I say this not because I’m partial to the humanities, although I am, but because a knowledge of history teaches children that they, singularly and collectively, make history rather than consume it. That would be a dangerous lesson indeed for any authoritarian regime to teach its nation’s children. Egypt’s counter-revolutionary forces have been working night and day for three years to unteach Egyptians the lessons of Tahrir Square. And they’re succeeding because most Egyptians don’t have the critical skills to see those forces for whom they are. As for reading, it’s not that Arab students are illiterate; they are able to read. But they are never encouraged to read much beyond signs and forms and the like. I had many university students who had never read a book or article in their lives that wasn’t required in school. Higher-ups in the Ministries of Education know that reading ignites imagination, and that imagination is not good for the status quo.
The difficulties that Egypt is now experiencing await Syria when Assad finally, one way or another, goes. They won’t be able to form parties, or engage in dialogue culminating in a fair election accepted by all. They will bicker amongst themselves, unable to truly listen, coalesce, or compromise. The only contenders will be the forces who had the most organization in advance—the wolves-in-sheeps’-clothing left from the fallen Assad regime, and al-Qaeda; and the vast majority of the Syrian people will be left with no real choice.
What can we do? In the absence of massive funding to overhaul curricula and retrain teachers (not to mention a decade or two for the fruits to show) which the existing regimes would never allow to reach real classrooms and students anyway, the only alternative is to go back to “Square One”. Tahrir Square, that is—the digital Tahrir Square. We all need to be getting on social media and social media blogs and engaging the next generation of Egyptians and Syrians in dialogue—any kind of dialogue. It doesn’t need to be debating politics, which they’d be reticent to do anyway if they’re in their native countries and have any sense at all. Any kind of discussion and sharing on social media that involve opinion and the open exchange of ideas will give them experience they can perhaps one day use to rebuild their countries. And may that day be sooner rather than later. Ameen.