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February 2, 2017

Egypt's greatest challenges: The top four (Part 2 of 2)

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Over-population: This is the third challenge facing Egypt. Too many people and not enough resources combine to create Egypt's third major challenge.

This is a problem directly influenced by religious teaching and tradition from both Muslims and Coptic Christians, resulting in serious impediments to resolving it.

As a result Egypt cannot adopt China’s policy of limiting family size, or penalize overly large families by denying them, for example, free education or health care services.

Egypt’s annual birth-rate of two million adds to a youth population that in 20 years will need far more resources in education, health care, jobs and housing than the country can provide even for today’s generation. 

A massive public education effort is urgently needed to instill in Egyptian parents that a newborn needs not only immediate financial resources, but long-term effort and engagement in child-rearing.

Parents need to learn that their responsibilities for childcare come before those of the state – exactly what Islam and Christianity uphold among their core teachings.

This is where religious leaders of both faiths must take center stage, yet have largely failed to do so. 

For both groups, this is not a time to worry about their numbers. Rather, their strength should be rooted in the quality of education they offer and through contributing to their country by building wealth, engaging in political life, and helping defend the nation by providing able recruits for its police forces and army.

Muslim and Christian leaders could be far more influential than they have been in assuring their congregations that their respective prophets’ teachings to raise large families were driven by necessity during ancient times when both faiths were weak minorities. Today this is no longer the case. 

Both groups should now teach a more pragmatic approach, that preventive measures to reduce pregnancies are not about killing babies-in-the-making. Instead, such measures are about using common sense to raise more stable and healthier families.

Education: Egypt’s fourth main challenge is actually a complex bundle of issues, all of which demand attention and action.

Education is not just one entity, but includes myriad facets of teaching, training, development, management and innovation skills.

As a longtime academic I have first-hand experience with the world-class calibre of graduate students that Egypt produces, especially in my specialty field of microchip design.

Many of my computer engineering students at the University of Waterloo were from that great pool of Egyptian talent.

But with a better education system their numbers may well have been far greater. What Egypt needs now is a restructured curriculum from early childhood through university which emphasizes language skills in both its Arabic mother tongue and English.

It must also include ethics, etiquette, and professional conduct.

It also should also include far more Egyptian history, teaching about how Christianity and Islam have contributed to the country’s national character and vice-versa. That does not mean teaching religion per se, but teaching about religion. 

This is an important distinction to bear in mind. Egyptian students currently receive religious instruction outside the public education system and in many cases, unregulated private or “underground” teaching is influenced by fanaticism. 

With publicly regulated religious history education, students would be impartially taught, with a more balanced focus on values that Islam and Christianity share in common.

With a fuller knowledge of areas in which they are united, youth from both faiths would be less susceptible to the influences of extremism.

Another important aspect of educational reform is offering increasing and higher-calibre training to produce more skilled workers in virtually every field of research, development, and manufacturing.

Egypt and the Arab world are not alone in lamenting the lack of hands-on skilled workers. Europe is also impacted by this shortage. Good trained engineers are in demand around the globe, for example, and their work affects numerous key industries, from oil exploration to pharmaceuticals.

Egypt can help rectify this problem through initiating more government-private partnerships to fund start-up businesses in a wide variety of areas. And to make such enterprises sustainable, innovative young Egyptians must also be taught good management skills, which have long been in short supply here.

In summary: These are all enormous challenges that cannot be rectified overnight, but with decisive starting steps, Egypt can collectively generate the national momentum to truly realize its 21st-century potential, which is virtually limitless.

Yes, Egypt is definitely playing catch-up, but with the right leadership at all levels of society, it can also play the long game and come out a winner on the international stage.

I would like to look forward to a time in the not-so-distant future when Egyptians are safe from terrorism; healthier in body and spirit; have thriving and stable family lives; and contribute their true intellect and skills to their nation and the world.

I truly believe this is possible and so I count it a privilege to do everything in my power to see my beloved Egypt succeed.

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