Thoughts on the Arab Spring and education in the countries involved

John Parsons

The cessation of  NATO air strikes in Libya prompts a review of the current situation in the Arab World.

What caused the ‘domino effect’ at the beginning of this year of popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen?  These countries are very different in many ways yet in a short space of time were in turmoil.

Smouldering resentment is understandable in authoritarian states which do not allow freedom of expression and rely on fear and repression to function.

Why suddenly did the population lose that fear and revolt against the status quo?

The rapid collapse of the Tunisian regime was obviously a trigger.  Populations of other countries in the Middle East quickly became aware of it through the media.

Many Arab countries have a large number of young citizens under 25. Many of whom are educated but unemployed.    It is these young people who have been the catalyst in the revolutionary movements.  They are also the ones who have readily adopted current technology.

One only has to look at young people walking around the streets ‘glued’ to their mobile phones, texting or accessing emails. It is the advent of the internet and more recently   social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter that has enabled easy communication between individuals and groups.  It is this facility that enabled unstructured movements to form successfully and mobilise.

One can trace the trend of developing technology even before the Arab Spring.  In Jeddah between the mid 80’s and 90’s satellite dishes sprung up like mushrooms.  In the early days the police would drive around the city disabling them (or so the story goes) but in the end gave up because there were so many.  Suddenly ordinary people had access to the BBC, CNN and other news networks that gave relatively unbiased views of the world. They also saw the better quality of life the ordinary individual in liberal societies enjoyed.   This was a revelation to many.

The pressure has been growing on Countries like Saudi.  The Saudis acted very quickly to contain the Bahrain situation by sending troops, concerned that the contagion would spread to their country.

Bashir Al Assad of Syria is obviously concerned that Western governments may intervene to enable the overthrow of his repressive government. Like many similar regimes he has belatedly promised reforms.  Actions and credibility are tarnished to the extent there is probably no going back.

What next?  It would seem that progress of the Arab Spring will be inexorable.  It may cause considerable instability in the region. Instead of the democracy dreamed of in Libya for example, war lords could be fighting it out for power.  In Egypt the danger is that the military may take over again.  On a more positive note a moderate Islamist government has formed in Tunisia which seems to be good news.

Political instability is the enemy of education.  Consider failed states such as Somalia.  Refugees from this country are amongst the lowest achievers, simply because they have been deprived of even the most basic education.

It is very important that emerging democracies resulting from the ‘Arab Spring’ make a swift move towards a system of outward looking, liberal education at all levels (primary, secondary and tertiary) a major priority.  It is the only way that any democratic and liberal gains can be embedded for the future.

Besides basic literacy and numeracy, investment in technocratic and vocational education should be a priority. Equal opportunities for women should be enshrined in the system.  As countries are liberated this will enable them to take their place in the modern world.  Governments will eventually develop their infrastructure with a well trained workforce that can function without constant outside help.

Western Governments could help initially by training a nucleus of suitable educators from each country to form the basis of a liberal and well rounded education system in each country.  This would vary according to the traditions and culture of the different societies.   A model could be the system introduced in Dubai.  This has a mixture of private and state schools offering a liberal, secular, international style of education

Looking forward, the Arab Spring promises much, but whether it can deliver a better quality of life for its citizens heavily depends on quick stabilisation of the area.  It also needs positive reinforcement and encouragement from the West without too much self interest skewing their aid. Hopefully, newly liberated countries will be receptive to well meaning Western countries who aspire to a settled and democratic Middle East.

John Parsons is a guest contributor at Facilitate Global. John spent most of his working life teaching overseas, leading as Principal of the international school formerly the British School New Hebrides, Headmaster of the British – Dutch Section of a Saudi Arabian International Schools (also known as Jeddah Preparatory School), Director of a teachers’ centre in Wokingham and latterly as Inspector and School Improvement Partner. John was part of an OFSTED’s School improvement Team, specialising in improving leadership and management in schools. Facilitate Global is most grateful to John for contributing his knowledge and experience of Education.

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