Voices from the Arab press: COVID-19 takes hit on education, deepens inequality

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

 CELEBRATING THE first day of the new academic year following months of closure due to the pandemic, in Cairo, October 10, 2021. (photo credit: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH / REUTERS)
CELEBRATING THE first day of the new academic year following months of closure due to the pandemic, in Cairo, October 10, 2021.
(photo credit: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH / REUTERS)

COVID-19 TAKES A HIT ON EDUCATION AND DEEPENS INEQUALITY

El Watan, Egypt, February 9 

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The continuation of the pandemic and the discovery of new variants has led to far-reaching effects on all aspects of life, both at the individual as well as the societal level.

Most of the global attention thus far has been turned to economic recovery, which is viewed as the key priority for countries seeking to overcome the pandemic’s impact. Indeed, economic recovery is important, as it is the main source for boosting production and growing income.

But there are also important areas to invest in, such as education, which has been greatly affected by the pandemic. The closures of schools and universities for long periods of time has led to deep disparities in levels of educational attainment, social mobility and the ability to compete in the labor market after graduation. Of course, more studies and surveys are needed in order to fully estimate the magnitude of this impact.

 A CASE in point is the decision to block US president Donald Trump from platforms like Twitter. (credit: Joshua Roberts/Illustration/File/Reuters) A CASE in point is the decision to block US president Donald Trump from platforms like Twitter. (credit: Joshua Roberts/Illustration/File/Reuters)

In the event that the pandemic is here to stay for at least a few more years, new policies must be devised to help mitigate this educational gap.

A recent report written by two renowned World Bank experts – Indermit Gill, who oversees the World Bank’s Equitable Growth Program, and Jaime Saavedra, who heads the World Bank’s Education Division – revealed disturbing findings about the ongoing closure of schools and universities during the pandemic, sometimes for periods exceeding a year. These findings are applicable to all nations, regardless of their gross domestic product or level of development.

According to the report, the heaviest burden will fall on those between the ages of four and 25, and could have generational effects that last well after the pandemic disappears from our lives. When children and young students stay out of the classroom for too long, not only do they stop learning, but they often forget what they have already learned. Further, the generation that is missing out on in-person education is also missing out on many social interactions and skills that are crucial for one’s success in life.

For a country like Egypt, the most important thing is to collect reliable data about our students and schools and, more importantly, to look at what solutions and interventions have worked for other countries. The Egyptian government must invest in remote learning initiatives and provide the necessary funds to build up our education system.

The pandemic is here to stay for at least a few years, and education will be a critical factor in our ability to overcome the adverse impacts of COVID-19. – Hassan Abu Talib

EGYPT BETWEEN THE BROTHERHOOD’S NARRATIVE AND REALITY ON THE GROUND

An-Nahar, Lebanon, February 8

Over the course of the past few weeks, the people of Egypt have been far busier following the Africa Cup of Nations championship, which was won by Senegal, than they have with the repeated calls of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies to take to the streets and promote civil disobedience on the anniversary of the January 25 revolution.

Why is it that they eagerly followed the news of the Egyptian soccer player Mohamed Salah and his fellow teammates more than they followed Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei’s call to his disciples to restore the memories and favors of the revolution? Why did the Egyptians raise their country’s flag to celebrate their national team but neglect to raise it in the squares and streets of Cairo?

The answer is simply that the Egyptian people have learned their lesson from the Arab Spring. They have come to the understanding that the Muslim Brotherhood, through its various chapters and affiliate organizations, seeks to undermine the unity of Egyptian society.

The irony is that, while certain satellite television channels backed by the Muslim Brotherhood aired special programs from abroad marking the 11th anniversary of the January 25 revolution and made it seem as though the Egyptian people supports the Brotherhood, the reality on the ground looked totally different. 

While these programs were airing, the people of Egypt were out in the streets celebrating their soccer victories, and young men and women raised their country’s flag with pride – as a sign of national unity.

Those who follow the Brotherhood’s propaganda and buy into it will be shocked to tour Egyptian cities, where they will quickly discover that they’ve been subjected to delusions and lies. They will realize that they were victims of a great deception, and that their distance from Egypt tainted their view of reality. 

On the ground, life in Egypt is proceeding normally, without chaos, demonstrations or clashes, except for the hustle and bustle of the huge Egyptian gatherings in the fields, clubs, youth centers and cafés over the past two weeks to watch the Egyptian team matches in the African championship. – Mohamed Salah 

ARE WE DOING ENOUGH AGAINST FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION?

Al-Arabiya, Riyadh, February 9

Last Sunday, February 6, marked the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Most Arab countries have banned this practice by law, given the fact that it has no religious basis in Islam and cannot be justified for health reasons. However, it is a social custom that still exists, even among us, especially in poor and rural communities.

Last week, I had a chance to listen to Dr. Maya Morsy, president of Egypt’s National Council for Women, who spoke at a virtual symposium held about this topic by the World Health Organization. Morsy spoke about how genital mutilation is one of the worst crimes, and how it affects women both psychologically and physically. She talked about how several Arab countries have laws designed to protect women and children. She listed all of the legislative frameworks that criminalize FGM.

However, relevant authorities and ministries must foster closer coordination and cooperation in order to eradicate this crime. For example, Egypt established a national committee to eliminate female circumcision, which brought together all parties concerned with the matter – whether governmental or nongovernmental, in addition to representatives of the executive and judicial authorities, law enforcement agencies, and important religious institutions. These are welcome developments that more countries should emulate. – Osama Al-Ghazali Harb 

IN WHOSE INTEREST: THE NATION-STATE OR BIG TECH?

Asharq al-Awsat, London, February 7

In 2015, reports surfaced about the potential penetration of Chinese entities into the computer systems of a number of major American technology companies, and the subsequent theft of intellectual property from those devices. In response, former president Barack Obama wanted to impose sanctions on China. However, he was dissuaded from doing so by leaders of affected companies, who claimed that any action against Beijing would prove far more costly than the cost of the theft itself. This is because they relied heavily on the Chinese market and Chinese factories. All of this prompted Obama to change his mind and rely, instead, on a joint statement with the Chinese president, in which the two leaders pledged to combat cybercrimes and cyber theft.

I’m bringing up this story intentionally, at a time when a new Cold War is emerging between two camps: one trying to protect the role of the nation-state on the grounds that it is a fundamental component of the global system; and a second, consisting of technology companies trying to undermine the current international order and replace it with a system in which the nation-state surrenders its power to multinational corporations that transcend borders.

A case in point is the decision to block former US president Donald Trump from platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. These platforms decided that Trump’s opinions, despite being supported by over 70 million Americans, didn’t align with their values as companies. The system that these companies are creating isn’t one based on the principle of democracy. Rather, it is the tyranny of the minority: a system ruled by a handful of unrelated individuals who run these companies.

The intensity of this conflict has only grown stronger in recent months. With the increasing dependence of governments on the services provided by these large companies, the equation has become unbalanced. Instead of these companies relying on the state’s support and care for them, the tides have turned, and the governments are those who now depend on Big Tech to survive. In 2020, Amazon announced that it would ban police use of its facial recognition software for a year, effectively halting law enforcement’s ability to identify criminals through online systems. 

Recently, the European Union escalated this confrontation by amending laws pertaining to the protection of personal information, in a way that prevents tech companies from monetizing data belonging to EU citizens, even when those data are collected outside the countries of the union.

While the EU is escalating the confrontation and trying to tame these companies, the matter is different in America, because most of these companies are either American or Chinese companies. These companies take advantage of public support in order to influence the policies of the American administration, either directly or indirectly.

As for the Middle East, we do not have such companies, and we are not as strong and organized as the EU, which negotiates with them and confronts them as a common threat under unified policies.

The pandemic helped in restoring the prestige and importance of the nation-state, which proved to be the most effective mechanism to control and organize societies. And while tech companies initially lagged behind, they quickly picked up the slack and introduced ways in which individuals could continue maintaining their normal lives under this new reality. This came into play with things like remote communication technologies, health passports and surveillance and tracking.

Personally, I believe that Arab countries that care about maintaining and strengthening the role of the nation-state should use their armies and research institutions to establish technology companies that provide them with their needs, instead of entrusting this to the private sector. The reliance on technology companies has become far greater than their ability to control them and reconcile their business interests with those of the state. – Bassam Al BinMohamed 

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.