KGOU

Rapid Population Growth Strains Egyptian Education System

Jul 24, 2017

Rapid population growth is a major catalyst for many of the issues currently facing the Middle East.

Juan Cole, a commenter on the Middle East and a historian at the University Michigan, says the demographic bulge has implications on a number of things, such as unemployment and infrastructure. The large number of young people also puts a strain on education.

“You have a country like Egypt which is a relatively poor country and the government education system is pretty ramshackle. They have very large class sizes which is not good for education,” Cole told KGOU’s World Views.

In the first half of a two-part interview with Suzette Grillot about a variety of issues in the Middle East, Cole said Egypt’s education system relies heavily on rote learning, and students are not taught how to analyze. People who graduate from Egypt’s education system have a difficult time working for international companies, for instance, because they do not know how to perform simple analyses, Cole said. On the other hand, students who go through foreign schools, such as the American University in Cairo, have better career prospects.

“Those young people, often from fairly well-off families, they'll get a proper education. The people who go to the state schools and some provincial university might come out with a degree that's relatively useless,” Cole said.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the Middle East’s population growth

A place like Egypt went from on the order of 5 million in 1850 to something near 90 million today. And that kind of demographic growth, that kind of population growth, has big implications for understanding of the place. Are there jobs for all those young people? And you know just since 1980 Egypt doubled in population. So that that puts pressure on infrastructure. Is the government able to school them? If they can't get a job and that large numbers of them are underemployed or unemployed, what do they do with their spare time? And ... in the Middle East gender segregation is pretty widespread. So you don't see boys and girls hanging out with one or the other a lot. [If] you have to postpone your marriage as a young man till you're 30 or 35 because you did not have the money to get an apartment and move out, what does that do to your psychology, to the position of young women and so forth? So that complex of issues around rapid population growth which is not unique to the Middle East, by any means, you have it in sub-Saharan Africa, India some parts of Asia, although, you know, in some parts of Asia like Japan and China they're actually now growing old so they don't have that problem. So the Middle East is one of those areas of the world where burgeoning growth is a big thing.

On different types of conflict in the Middle East

I think we have to break down conflict because there's all kinds of conflict. There's crime. There's revolution. They're not caused by the same things. The social science, and you know this literature better than I do, doesn't seem to show that poor people make revolutions ... When you're hopeless you don't try to change things politically as easily. You're hopeless. And maybe you don't also have a lot of resources to try to change things, you're just trying to make a living and keep the wolf from the door. So it appears to be that [when] people get a little bit better off, that they're more likely to make that kind of trouble. And so like the Tunisian revolution of 2010-2011 was in one of the wealthier societies in Africa, and it was a demand for personal liberties and democracy and so forth from, you know, the Tunisian middle classes. And it had fair success. So that's one kind of trouble and it's not being caused by poverty.

But I think, sure, you know, if you have for other reasons a guerrilla group operating easier to find people to join it if you can pay them a little bit if people are desperately poor. So there's a kind of a labor pool for for guerrilla action and what we might call terrorism out there. That would be a factor but I don't think that most of the violent conflict in the Middle East is mainly about poverty.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Suzette Grillot:  Juan Cole, welcome to World Views.

Juan Cole: Thank you so much.

Grillot:  Thanks for being here. Well you have such a fascinating history in studying growing up really in the Middle East. A long presence there growing up, your family being posted there. So you've seen so much in that region in terms of its developments and the way in which it's grown and changed. You've studied everything from languages in the region to religions and histories and cultures of the region. So as a Middle East expert and I you know as you might not be surprised we spend a lot of time on this show talking about the Middle East. It's definitely a part of the world that we pay a lot of attention to for many reasons. But can you just start by kind of you know thinking back about your your history there and what are some of the made main issues we really need to know, what are the highlights, what are the things that that if you're just going to you know start with a blank slate what are the things that we really need to know about the Middle East?

Grillot: One of the characteristics of the Middle East that people I think generally have a sense of but it's not usually foregrounded is how fast the population has been growing for the last 150 years. A place like Egypt went from on the order of 5 million in 1850 to something near 90 million today. And that kind of demographic growth that kind of population growth has big implications for understanding of the place. Are there jobs for all those young people. And you know just since 1980 Egypt doubled in population. So that that puts pressure on infrastructure. Is the government able to school them? If they can't get a job in that large numbers of them are underemployed or unemployed, what do they do with their spare time? And if you have a in the Middle East gender segregation is pretty widespread. So you don't see boys and girls hanging out with one or the other a lot. You have to postpone your marriage as a young man till you're 30 or 35 because you did not have the money to get an apartment and move out, what does that do to your psychology, to the position of young women and so forth. So that complex of issues around rapid population growth which is not unique to the Middle East, by any means, you have it in sub-Saharan Africa, India some parts of Asia, although you know in some parts of Asia like Japan and China they're actually now growing old so they don't have that problem. So the Middle East is one of those areas of the world where burgeoning growth is a big thing.

Grillot: I've seen some statistics that suggest that you know up to 75 percent of their population might be under the age of 30.

Cole: Oh yeah.

Grillot: That's just tremendous to think about that huge youth bulge. And and again you know as you mentioned kind of the developmental consequences of that making sure that they can be employed. What about education too? I mean is this also something that is that they struggle to support their population given the large numbers of youth?

Cole: Sure. It's a big problem. You have a country like Egypt which is a relatively poor country and the government education system is pretty ramshackle. You know they have very large class sizes which is not good for education. A lot of the teaching is rote learning. So the kids are not being taught how to analyze. You get people coming out of the Egyptian educational system who want to work for, say, an international company and the company will complain, 'Well you know we gave them this analysis to do and they do they can't do it because they haven't been trained to do that.' It's not that they bright. And so it's the kids that went up through the foreign schools you know you have the German school, or the American school, and you have an American University in Cairo. Those people those young people often from fairly well-off families they'll get a proper education. The people who go to the state schools and some provincial university might come out with a degree that's relatively useless.

Grillot: So you know Joshua Landis of course a good friend of yours studies the region he often reminds us how poor this region is. I mean I think we were touching on this issue of significant poverty in the region. And so when you put all of this together you've got obviously economic challenges, social challenges and and you know those themselves might actually contribute to a great deal of the of the conflict we see in in the area, internal and inter regional conflict. How how would you understand how would you help us understand conflict in the region from perhaps internal perspective, and then maybe adding to that that notion of you know significant amount of intervention and regional dynamics and other players like the United States like like like Russia like others in Europe that have played a role and some of the conflict we've seen there?

Cole: Well I think we have to break down conflict because there's all kinds of conflict. There's crime. There's revolution. They're not caused by the same things. The social science and you know this literature better than I do doesn't seem to show that poor people make revolutions. It's you know when you're when you're hopeless you don't try to change things politically as easily. You're hopeless. And maybe you don't also have a lot of resources to try to change things you're just trying to make a living and keep the wolf from the door. So it appears to be that that's what people get a little bit better off that they're more likely to make that kind of trouble and so like the Tunisian revolution of 2010-2011 was in one of the wealthier societies in Africa and it was a demand for personal liberties and democracy and so forth from, you know, the Tunisian middle classes. And it had fair success. So that's one kind of trouble and it's not being caused by poverty. But I think sure you know if you have for other reasons a guerrilla group operating easier to find people to join it if you can pay them a little bit if people are desperately poor. So there's a kind of a labor pool for for guerrilla action and what we might call terrorism out there. That that would be a factor but I don't think that most of the violent conflict in the Middle East is mainly about poverty. Poverty is a brake on certain kinds of development which may feed into it so for instance Adam Przeworski at New York University crunched the numbers on societies that transition successfully from authoritarian governments to democracy. You know I think the political scientists are very clever they they actually bracket why this might have happened. You know why this process might have started. But then his question is if it starts for any reason, if people seem to want to try to move towards democracy, do they succeed or not, and under what circumstances? So you had a one party state in Taiwan from the end of World War II until the late 90s and then the thing broke down into a two party system. And you know it's not that there are no problems in Taiwan but more or less that regular parliamentary elections are occurring and there are two parties and so forth. That is a relatively successful transition. So his question is why did why was it successful in Taiwan and maybe not in some other places? Or it happened in Spain after Franco. And his conclusion was quite startling is that there's one single data point that tells you whether how likely it is. It's not dictatorial. There are some exceptions. But on the whole and by and large one single data point tells you how likely they are to succeed. It is how wealthy the society is. So if you look at those revolts that broke out in 2011, the youth revolts in the Arab world, and you went down the list of the ones that had some success in moving towards a more open society, a more democratic system, it is mainly Tunisia. It's the wealthiest of them on a per capita basis. You have to exclude Libya because although it looks on paper like it's wealthy because of the oil, the oil just goes to the government. So it's not you know it's not like ordinary people necessarily have a lot of money. So that.

Cole: When you ask about poverty and conflict, if poverty weakens society and weakens politics, so it's easier for dictators to establish themselves and rule, but then they're inflexible. You know dictators don't have a feedback loop. You can't go back to them and say you know your policy is wrong because it's harming our children this way. They would just like put you in jail. So then that makes the politics brittle and then maybe sets things up for violence.

Grillot: Of course is a longstanding debate among some political scientists regarding whether economic development comes first and political development then follows. That relationship between economic and political development is in some cases a bit muddy, but the point that you know you have a lack of wealth, I guess, in the region which would explain at least to some degree the ability to transition from authoritarian rule to something more democratic, resembling representation of the people. But

Grillot: Can we really talk about this region without mentioning Israel and the Palestinian conflict and how that influences everything in the region. We recently had a visit by the ambassador from Afghanistan, for example, Afghan ambassador to the United States, who was asked about, you know, the region and he said well we need to really solve that Palestinian situation. So I mean we don't we hardly even bring it up any more. We're talking about Syria we're talking about all the other dynamics in the region. What about Israel and Palestine?

Cole: I think, actually, the corporate media in the United States can have it not bring it up. I think it's people who bring it up a lot are blackballed. And I think the Americans simply do not understand how central this issue is. And some people argue that it's irrational and that's a small issue and so forth. But people are irrational about politics. However you look upon the Mexican-American War, the fact is, and maybe those guys at the Alamo weren't really all that heroic or admirable people, some of them were slavers and so forth. But if you were in the late 1840s the Alamo excited a lot of passions in Maine. You know in places far away. Why? You know it's identity politics to some extent. Well you know from that kind of old white American you know paradigm about about the Alamo. That's how the Middle East feels about the Palestinians. They feel that they're their Alamo. They're under siege and they're an innocent people that they identify with who are daily being, you know, having their land stolen from them having their rights taken away from them, living in a state of statelessness. And one of our Supreme Court justices I think influenced by the theorist Hannah Arendt said that being a citizen, being a citizen in a state is is the right to have rights. So a stateless person like a Palestinian doesn't have even the right to have rights. And if you think about it, what's the first thing the Nazis did when they decided to get the Jews? They took away their citizenship. They left them stateless. They were no longer Germans. And then anything you wanted to do to them you could do to them in the aftermath because they no longer had the right to have rights. It wasn't just Jews Gypsies and .. and there was a time when people's citizenship was taken away from them in the millions very lightly. Franco took away the leftist citizenship in Spain. The Soviets took away the white Russian citizenship. In the interwar period, there were millions of people who were left stateless and often to whom very bad things happened as a result.

Cole: One of the things that the world were post-World War II order did under the United Nations was to make it a scandal to deprive people of their citizenship. And so the U.N. I think estimates on the order of 12 million stateless in the world, there are seven point four billion people that's not very many. But you know a very large proportion of those are Palestinians.

Cole: And so if you attend to the West Bank press, every day there's a shooting, there's a stabbing, there is an occupation of a building. There are people moving in there. People being moved out. Wells are going dry because the other people dug their well deeper. People are being ... you know olive trees are being cut down. People are being deprived of their basic economic and human rights, and it is Israelis who are depriving the Palestinians of these rights, not the other way around. The Israelis are occupied militarily occupying the Palestinians. And, you know, I don't think most Americans even understand the situation. They think the Palestinians are mean and terrorists and they're doing something to the Israelis there. They're only seeing one side of the story. There is a legitimate Israeli narrative, but frankly the Israelis have most no leg to stand on with regard to the occupation of the West Bank. This has been going on since 67. It's not a military occupation anymore. There's not any war of which it's a part. And international law doesn't allow you to flood your population into occupied territories or to alter the life ways and disadvantage the people who live there. It's supposed to be a temporary thing during a war and then you give it back. And the Israelis are not giving it back. So you're talking about a situation where several million people are being left stateless and and there are these daily inequities and that's front page news everywhere, not just in the Arab world, in the Muslim world. And it's not front page news in United States. It is not news at all. We get on page 17 if at all but probably it's not even being reported.

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