Teaching Recent History In Egypt

After a turbulent summer, Egyptian students are heading back to school. How do teachers incorporate rapidly unfolding history into a curriculum? Officials tell state media they are in the process of amending textbooks to erase changes that the Muslim Brotherhood government had made earlier.

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After months of unrest of Egypt led to former President Mohamed Morsi's ouster this summer, schools are back in session. The new government says it has quickly rewritten portions of school textbooks. Merrit Kennedy in Cairo looks at how Egypt is teaching its recent past as historical events continue to unfold.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: In the last three years, Egyptians went from autocratic rule to military rule to Islamist rule and back to military rule, and the national curriculum has also morphed with every change in leadership. As the adage goes, history is written by the victor.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: At a private school in a Cairo suburb, students dressed in yellow polo shirts are back in the classroom. It looks like business as usual. But high school history teacher Abdel Hamid Ali says the past three years have had a major effect on the way history is taught.

ABDEL HAMID ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: Ali reads aloud from a four-year old history book that used to be part of the national curriculum under Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years until he was deposed in 2011. Now, it's a relic. The text heaps effusive praise on the former leader, describing the autocrat as a president who freed citizens from their fears and promoted democracy.

ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: But in the most recent book, the 30 years of Mubarak's rule have been totally erased. Mahmoud Abulnassr is the Minister of Education, a position he's held since Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the military in early July.

MAHMOUD ABULNASSR: (Through Translator) Next year, God willing, history books will include all the history as it is; Hosni Mubarak, Morsi, everything, and everyone will be mentioned with their positive and negative sides.

KENNEDY: This means that the government is reshaping its official narrative of Mubarak's rule and for the first time, writing a history of Morsi's presidency as the former leader sits in prison. Historian Mahmoud Sabit says the main drawback of including very recent history at a moment when major events are still happening is that it will be politicized.

MAHMOUD SABIT: You can't really address it in a detached way, it's been far too close to the reality of what people have experienced over the last few years. And to try and do something that is objective is very difficult in such circumstances.

KENNEDY: Amira Sadek, the managing director of three private schools in Cairo, says Egypt is still in a transformational period and it's a mistake to include the recent past in the new books.

AMIRA SADEK: Yes, we know that there were some mistakes that happened in the previous period but there are no facts. The truth is not that clear till now. So, we are making much changes without making sure what is wrong and what's right.

ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: Despite the debate on whether or not to teach recent events, history teacher Abdel Hamid Ali says students are particularly interactive when talking about the 2011 uprising in the classroom. A rundown of its goals and events has been in the new civics textbook for the last two years. Education Minister Mahmoud Abulnassr says that the civics textbooks taught now went through a rapid rewrite before the school year started last month. Two of the books prepared by the Morsi government contained material he described as outrageous.

ABULNASSR: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: Abulnassr claims that before they were rewritten, the textbooks said that Egypt was part of a broader Islamic caliphate with Jerusalem as the capital, and it encouraged students to join the Muslim Brotherhood organization. But NPR couldn't corroborate that. When asked, Abulnassr was unable to furnish a copy of the recalled books and members of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership couldn't be reached for comment. Most of them are in jail. Mahmoud Sabit, the historian, says that there is a more basic problem with the national curriculum.

SABIT: The Egyptian curricula to teach children about their own history has failed abysmally by not really teaching very much.

KENNEDY: He hopes that will change. As Egypt goes through another political transformation and grapples with its future, it will also continue to reshape how it thinks about its past. For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo.

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