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  • Competing, Overlapping, and Contradictory Agendas:Egyptian Education Under British Occupation, 1882-1922
  • Mona Russell (bio)

Education is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, states can utilize education to achieve far-reaching socioeconomic goals and to preserve social order. On the other hand, education is a powerful means of achieving individual needs as well as bringing about an awareness of the need to change the existing order. States, religious hierarchies, social organizations, and individual teachers can all work to foster a particular sense of being in students, who, as graduates, bring their educational baggage into society. Education, be it religious or secular, can serve as a social glue, bonding individuals together by creating a shared cultural belief system.1 In a country under occupation, the various forces affecting the educational process are quite complex involving colonial officials, local elites, and an indigenous intelligentsia. In the case of Egypt, the story becomes further entangled because it was home to many émigrés from the Levant, some of whom came for business reasons and others for greater intellectual freedom. The context of educational battles between various segments of Egyptian society and the British must be seen in light of overall policies of Egyptian development, Egyptian finances, and British imperial interests. Furthermore, the accommodations that were reached for boys' education did not work as well for female education given the competing, overlapping, and sometimes-contradictory agendas of the factions involved.

For over fifty years prior to the British occupation in 1882, growing numbers of Egyptian students were being trained in new forms of government-sponsored education. To facilitate his plan for economic and military expansion, Muhammad Ali (r. 1805-1848) created a new educational system. Rather than building upon the existing system of religious education or dismantling it, he built a parallel system starting at the top with specialized schools for military science, engineering, and medicine (for men and women). He then worked his way down to the primary level. Initial recruitment for the advanced schools would come from the traditional schools, but later his new primary and preparatory schools would prove more fertile training ground. 2 Furthermore, he created a Committee of Public Instruction to oversee the educational process, and this committee endorsed the notion of female education, although it did little to advance it.3

Muhammad Ali supplemented his program with the use of foreign advisors, translators, and educational missions to Europe. A paternalistic state sponsored the entire system, covering tuition fees, books, other educational expenses, and even personal expenses. Whether in primary, preparatory, or specialized schools, as well as missions abroad, the state strictly governed Egyptian students with careful supervision, continuous observation, and numerous regulations.4 The state was attempting to foster both the student's character and intellect to better serve its needs.

Muhammad Ali's plans for expansion and development contradicted both Ottoman and British aims.5 The two powers worked together to remove the Egyptian presence from Syria and the Hejaz, as well as to dismantle his economic monopolies by enacting a new commercial treaty in 1838.6 Muhammad Ali was compensated, however, with the hereditary governorship of Egypt in 1840. From this point, Egypt turned to supplying Britain with raw materials, namely cotton, and no longer posed a threat commercially, industrially, or militarily to Anglo-Ottoman aims.

As the fortunes of Muhammad Ali waned after 1840, there was less need for the new educational system because expansion and industrialization were halted. His successors Abbas (r. 1848-1854) and Said (r.1854-1863) were both unable and unwilling to sponsor education to the same degree.7 The economy simply could not sustain extensive educational programs. By the end of Said's rule there was no longer even a Ministry of Public Instruction [diwan al-madaris], and only the military and medical schools remained, despite the fact that the economy was improving.8

Ismail, who came to power in 1863, benefited from a bustling trade in cotton, heightened by the American Civil War; yet he was also thwarted by the unfavorable conditions of the Suez Canal concession. Western observers initially were optimistic regarding his ascension to power.9 Nevertheless, historians and contemporary observers have given mixed reviews...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-226X
Print ISSN
1089-201X
Pages
pp. 50-60
Launched on MUSE
2005-12-07
Open Access
No
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