Egypt has made significant strides in battling illiteracy, with 20.1% of Egyptians now considered illiterate, down from 25.9% in 2013 and 39.4% in 1996.
However, figures released by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS ) to mark International Literacy Day, mean that about 14.3 million Egyptians, not including those under the age of 9, cannot read or write.
“This is a very high rate that we should be ashamed of,” said Egyptian MP Magda Bakry, a university professor who sits on parliament’s Education Committee. “We must know the reasons why the complete eradication of illiteracy is becoming impossible despite all the resources allocated for the National Literacy Programme.”
Egypt offers free education to millions of citizens in tens of thousands of schools and dozens of universities but Egyptians are divided on the quality of free government education, particularly in poor rural areas, with many questioning why literacy rates are increasing so slowly. Some argue that the government must invest more in the National Literacy Programme. Others say the authorities should look to a new solution.
The programme offers literacy classes to anyone who is not in school, both children and adults. The National Literacy Programme involves specialist teachers providing literacy courses to help students learn the Arabic alphabet to read and write at a basic level. Many of those who pass the course pursue formal education at special Ministry of Education classes for adults.
Literacy rates among Egyptian adults, particularly in rural areas, are lower according to age. CAPMAS figures show the illiteracy rate for young Egyptians aged 15- 24 standing at 6.5% compared to 57.1% for those 60 and older.
The National Literacy Programme is failing to attract a requisite level of adult students who never had the opportunity to attend school or who dropped out of education. Government figures indicate that at least 200,000 pupils dropped out of primary and middle school in 2016. One of the main reasons cited for doing so was to work at a young age to support the family.
“In some areas, children earn a living by working and their families depend on the money they earn,” said Hanan Salem, a sociology professor at Ain Shams University. “Some children even reach school age and are never enrolled in school by their parents, who need them to work to cater for the needs of the family.”
There are about 1 million working children in Egypt, official figures indicate, although civil society organisations estimate the number to be much larger, possibly as high as 3 million.
Salem said that illiteracy is not just an impediment to economic progress but a possible security threat.
“They can easily be influenced by radical groups that have their own skilful way of swaying the uneducated and turning them against the whole society,” she said.
The General Authority for Literacy and Adult Education, the state agency responsible for implementing the National Literacy Programme, said it cannot be held solely responsible for the failures.
“Illiteracy is a national problem and this is why all state institutions and all society must join hands with us to solve this problem,” said Essam Qamar, the head of the authority.
He stressed that the General Authority for Literacy and Adult Education would launch a number of new efforts that aim to completely eradicate illiteracy by the end of 2019. To achieve this goal, it is undertaking new measures, including offering incentives, such as vocational education to bolster attendance in literacy classes.
The authority convinced the government to require illiterate drivers to attend literacy classes before they are given or allowed to renew driver’s licences.
“These measures are very important if we want to eradicate illiteracy altogether,” Qamar said. “Sorry to say, a lot of people fail to attend literacy classes, either because they want to use this time to work and earn a living or because they do not want to learn.”
Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.