General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (pictured above) promised he would reform the Egyptian school texts and curriculum, and according to Marcus Sheff of the NGO IMPACT-se, he has kept his word. Over the past five years, since 2018, year by year he has systematically changed the textbooks and curriculum, one year at a time, beginning with Grade One, and now those new textbooks are available for Grades One through Five. More on this welcome news is here: “Reformed Egyptian curriculum promotes coexistence, democracy,” Jerusalem Post, April 24, 2023:
Egyptian textbooks that have been replaced as part of a reform of the country’s curriculum promote coexistence, equality and democracy, although there is still work to be done to remove prejudiced and antisemitic content from the education system, according to a report by IMPACT-se published on Sunday. [April 23]
In 2018, the Egyptian education system, the largest education system in the Arab world, began a year-by-year reform of its curriculum, starting with the first grade and proceeding a grade each year. As of 2023, the reform reached the fifth grade.
The textbooks that have been reformed so far promote tolerance and coexistence between Islam, Judaism and Christianity, including by noting that Kosher food is also Halal.
El-Sisi’s promise to make changes to Egyptian schoolbooks has been steadily fulfilled, one year at a time, so as not to arouse wholesale opposition from the fanatics who are always ready to be alarmed by any signs of decency toward Jews and Israel, including the excision or dilution of the antisemitism and anti-Israel messaging they are quite content should remain in the schoolbooks forever. Compare El-Sisi’s promises, systematically being made good on, to the promises that UNRWA makes every year to its donors, that this year, at long last, it will revise its textbooks, and then, as always, it never does. UNRWA schoolbooks are still full of hair-raising antisemitism, at every level, and the books used in the schools of the Palestinian Authority, when they are different from those in the UNRWA schools, are not any better. But Egypt has been different. El-Sisi was determined to keep his word and improve Egyptian schoolbooks. There is now more discussion in Egyptian schoolbooks about the need for tolerance and coexistence among adherents of the three Abrahamic religions, rather than the preaching of endless Jihad against non-Muslims. Even kosher and halal food are discussed, in order to encourage little Egyptians to see similarities between the Islamic and the Jewish dietary rules.
The Holocaust is still not taught in the Egyptian curriculum and there is very little content on Jewish history in general, except for stories about Moses and the Jews in Alexandria.
It makes sense that in this presentation of Jewish history — at a level suitable for elementary school children, who cannot absorb much more – the entrancing story of Moses in Egypt, discovered amidst the bulrushes, and then raised by, the daughter of Pharoah, be taught, blending Egyptian and Jewish history. And then the stirring story of the Jews of Alexandria, who lived in the city from its very beginning, when it was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. There is much for these young students to learn about the Jews of Alexandria. They played a crucial role in the political, economic, and religious life of the city during both the Hellenistic and Roman periods. They constituted 35% of the population during the Roman era. Many important Jewish figures lived or studied in Alexandria, including the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus. And while the Jews of the city suffered during its Roman era, after the Muslim conquest of Egypt the Jewish population increased to about 400,000 – a fact that no doubt is was included in those elementary school textbooks to make the point that “Jews again flourished in Alexandria under the city’s benign Muslim rule.” Every favorable mention of Jews is tied to a story about Egyptian or Muslim magnanimity.
Textbooks in grades that have not yet been affected by the reform (6th grade and above as of 2023) still contain antisemitic tropes about Jews, including blaming Jews for antisemitism in Europe and describing them as an ethnic group engaged in finance. One case of antisemitic tropes has been removed from the textbooks of grades that have not yet been affected by the reforms.
If the past five years are a guide, the textbooks will continue to be cleansed of much of their antisemitic content by Egyptian authorities, one year at a time.
The textbooks have a mixed approach to the State of Israel, according to IMPACT-se, lauding the benefits of the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, but also representing Israel as an illegitimate “Zionist entity” aimed at expanding at the expense of the Palestinians. Maps in the textbooks avoid listing the State of Israel by name.
Anti-Israel material remains, however, even in the textbooks for the earlier grades. On the plus side, the 1979 peace treaty is praised for the benefits it brought to Egypt, which had the entire Sinai returned to it, along with the billions of dollars in infrastructure that the Israelis had built, including the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Israel is still referred to in the schoolbooks as a “Zionist entity” and presented as a power attempting to expand by taking over more “Palestinian” land. In the maps in Egyptian textbooks, the place name “Israel” still does not appear. The Egyptians are clearly more wary of changing the treatment of Israel in their textbooks than they are of removing antisemitic passages.
Content removed from the reformed textbooks includes lessons comparing past wars between Egypt and Israel to fights between Mohammed and the Jews in the Arabian Peninsula.
This is a very important change. No longer are the Egyptian children being taught about Muhammad’s enmity toward, and battles with, the Jews. No mention, for example, of his attack on the Jewish farmers of the Khaybar Oasis in 628 A.D., or of the hair-raising chant that in Islamic tradition refers to that attack: “Khaybar, Khaybar, ya yahud. Jaish Muhammad, sa yahud” which means “Jews, remember Khaybar, the army of Muhammad is returning,” which has been used as a battle cry when attacking Jews or Israelis. That story, and others about the Jewish tribes, and individual Jews, such as Abu ‘Afak and Ka’b bin al-Ashraf, who opposed Muhammad and whom he wished to have killed, have apparently been removed from Egyptian school texts, at least through the fifth grade. That’s a good start.
New textbooks for Christian schools in Egypt acknowledge the Jewish religious connection to the land of Israel and refer to King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, but also state that the Jews crucified Jesus.
The new textbooks in the schools for Copts now make clear what before had been obscured — the Jewish religious connection to the Land of Israel; these textbooks even recognize that there was a First Temple of the Jews, that built by King Solomon, in Jerusalem. Even now the Palestinians insist that there never was a First, or a Second, Temple in Jerusalem, which “has always been a Palestinian city.” On the other hand, the Coptic texts also contain the dreamy misinformation that has been a staple of Christian antisemitism for nearly 2000 years – that the Jews, not the Romans, crucified Jesus.
There are other changes in the schoolbooks, aside from the distinct improvement in the treatment of Jews and of Israel. For example, the revolutions of January 2011 and June 2013 in Egypt are portrayed positively by Egyptian textbooks as popular attempts to bring freedom, democracy, and liberal values, although political protests and revolutionary actions are discouraged by the curriculum. Even if the military dictatorship of General El-Sisi is far from being a democracy, the fact that democracy is praised in the new textbooks is important: it plants the yearning for such a political system in young heads.
In January 2011, Mubarak was overthrown in what was indeed a popular revolution, but in June 2013, it was not a popular revolution, but a coup by the military, led by General El-Sisi, that led to the overthrow of the regime of President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both of these are presented in the new texts as “popular revolutions,” in an understandable attempt to make the current Egyptian regime more palatable.
Gender equality is also promoted by the new curriculum, with women being encouraged to participate in public life, and with content committed to the independence and free will of women. Girls with and without Muslim hair-covering are illustrated in the textbooks.
The regime is clearly trying to improve the status of women, and to enlarge the opportunities available to them, in what has hitherto been a conservative Muslim society. The free will of women – no longer depicted as being under the sole control of their husbands – is stressed. And the hijab is shown n the illustrations of Egyptian women not as a requirement, but as a choice; both those with and those without the hijab are presented as social equals.It’s not up to the clerics; it’s up to the women themselves to choose whether they wish to be hijabbed or not.
The textbooks additionally promote notions of racial equality and representation of people with disabilities, featuring illustrations of diverse classrooms and social settings.
This is another improvement in the texts: a conscious attempt to promote racial equality, when for centuries black people in Egypt — addressed as “abd” or “slave” — have been looked down upon. The new texts show classrooms with both white and black students; the students who use these texts are being quietly schooled in racial tolerance. And people with physical disabilities are similarly presented in a positive light, deserving of acceptance rather than scorn.
Ultimately, the new education system in Egypt, while still facing numerous challenges, has great potential to produce a new generation of well-educated, tolerant youth who are immune to radicalization and extremism. However, achieving this result requires more investment by the government and private sector in improving the quality of the education offered at governmental schools as well as the curricula offered at the parallel education system of Al-Azhar,” wrote IMPACT-se.
IMPACT-se CEO Marcus Sheff stated that “the Egyptian government under President al-Sisi has fulfilled its promise to reform its school curriculum. Egypt has the largest education system in the Middle East and North Africa, with 25 million children enrolled in schools, and so this process of removing antisemitism and other hatred from school textbooks is a significant contribution to the emergence of a tolerant Egyptian society and region.”
He’s done well, General El-Sisi. May he continue year by year to diminish the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel content still in the textbooks for junior high and high school. At this point I’d give him a B plus. If he continues on this path of benign revision, he will eventually deserve an A.