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Elizabeth Hampton

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Egyptian Educators Fight the Good Fight

Posted: 09/30/11 12:41 PM ET

In the first teacher strike since 1951, Egyptian educators have directed the recently ignited revolutionary spirit towards a school system in much need of reform. The ouster of Mubarak was merely a starting point. Having dismantled the inertia and complacency once fueled by disenfranchisement, Egyptians are now reclaiming their voices and taking an active part in shaping the future of their country.

Images of Egyptian strikers are reminiscent of wintery scenes from outside the Wisconsin State Capital building, sans the Big 10 sweatshirts and snow, of course. And while educators from the Middle East and Middle West may find solidarity on many issues, the grounds for protesting in Egypt put things in serious perspective. This is not to say that the grievances of Wisconsin teachers were unfounded -- Scott Walker's attack on collective bargaining undercut constitutional rights, and, ranked 49th among starting teacher salaries nationwide, the state's compensation for first year educators leaves something to be desired.

Still, the demands of Egyptian teachers are much more fundamental: a consistent contractual system (many work without a contract at all), a discontinuance of merit-based exams and a minimum monthly salary of 3,000 Egyptian pounds. That's roughly $500. It's important to remember that this is what Egyptian teachers are aspiring for, not what they currently make. Majority of educators bring in far less and are forced to tutor on the side to support themselves and their families. An article in The Wall Street Journal even cited one educator as making less than 700 Egyptian pounds per month (approximately $115). The cost of living in Egypt is low, but such a salary practically aligns what should be a respected profession with poverty.

A particularly infuriating aspect of Egypt's school system is the abject inequity that marks the quality of schools. At private and international schools, educators are in no way subject to the same deplorable pay or desiccated resources that their public counterparts must endure. Positions in these schools are often filled with ex-patriots, all of whom find teaching in Egypt both professionally and financially rewarding. The handfuls of Egyptian children who attend these schools receive a far better education; they are the lucky few who later attend good universities and have access to well-paying jobs.

This educational inequity exacerbates the wealth gap that beleaguers Egypt's economy. You'd be hard pressed to find many businesses that cater to middle class Egyptians because there is no veritable middle class. Restaurants are either wildly expensive or dubiously cheap. The same holds true for clothing stores, electronic shops and supermarkets. While a variety of factors contribute to economic disparity, the education system plays a critical role in laying the foundation for a stable and balanced economy. Well-intentioned NGOs, the IMF and the World Bank can fuel money and economic programs into the country all day long, but until schools start churning out a population that is prepared to enter the workforce, long-lasting change will not occur.

Though the teacher strike has been put on temporary hold following Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's proposed concessions, issues facing the Egyptian school system are nowhere near a resolution. As Egypt enters a new political era, there is enormous potential to improve public sector institutions that have long stymied significant progress. As with our industrious educators from the Midwest, the Egyptian people are not resting on their laurels. This is their moment, and they have made their needs clear. Now, it is time for the governing parties to listen and act.