Thousands attend protest as teachers’ strike picks up speed

Thousands of teachers demonstrated in front of the cabinet on Saturday against the slow pace of reforms in the Ministry of Education, in continuation of a widespread strike begun when the academic year started last Saturday, 17 September.

Saturday’s protest was an indication that the teachers' strike has picked up pace since the boycott of the schoolyear began, as participation swelled compared to last week.

Several teachers’ unions across Egypt called the strike to demand immediate reforms to the education system and the remuneration structures of the public school system’s notoriously underpaid educators. Unions and individual educators nationwide are participating in the call for reform.

Saturday's protesters complained that low wages force teachers to get night jobs, which keeps them from performing their in-school duties to their full capacity. “At night I have to work as a waiter in the restaurant to compliment my LE700 per month salary,” said Amr Farag, who has been teaching craftsmanship in Cairene public schools for 9 years.

Most called on the immediate dismissal of current Minister of Education Ahmed Gamal Eddin Moussa. Having been in office since February 2011, Moussa introduced a program including incentives of 200 percent of a teacher's salary. The program, however, also scraps examination bonuses, so many teachers believe the result constitutes a pay decrease.

The Independent Teachers Syndicate made Moussa’s resignation the first of their immediate requests, due to the slow pace of reform in the wake of the 25 January revolution. “The Ministry of Education has taken our case lightlyIt however, excludes examination bonuses, which many teachers believe constitutes a pay decrease. made no positive steps or shown initiative to truly improve the situation of public school teachers,” said Fouad Khalifa, who has taught physical education in Gharbiya Governorate for the past 20 years.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf reportedly denied Moussa’s resignation request earlier this month over the incentives program.

Spokespersons from the ministry have said the demands for minimum wage increases – to at least LE1200 – are not feasible this year due to budgetary considerations. “We’re willing to wait, but the ministry has completely ignored us, not having the common decency to inform us of a plan to fully address our demands,” Farag said.

Activists see the ministry’s inaction in reassessing public school teachers' wages as unjustifiable. “The Ministry of Finance can immediately redistribute all the Education Ministry's wages in a more equitable way, and also look into limiting discretionary government spending,” said Kamal Mogheith, an outspoken legal activist who teaches education at Helwan University.

Teachers complain of generally being mistreated as far as government employees go. “The prime minister met the university professors on strike and they were much fewer than us in number,” Farag said. A military policeman did emerge from the cabinet building asking for five representatives to go in and formally present their demands, but the crowd broke out into chanting, “he should come down and meet all of us!” 

The striking teachers seemed to have lost faith in the current leadership, and feel that another round of leadership changes is necessary in the Ministry of Education.

The independent syndicate called for teachers to hold off from work until the minister resigns and the ministry announces a plan for reform. They also called on teachers who oppose the strike and benefit from private tutoring to join the cause for at least one week in solidarity with their peers.

School districts in Cairo and Giza governorates did not see widespread participation in the strike. “Teachers here benefit from the high revenue of public tutoring. The beginning of the school year is usually when they get tutoring schedules in order.  In rural areas they don’t make nearly as much,” said Wafaa Mohamed, a counselor in the Giza governorate.

The strike has not been met with much outward support from parents. One man, stuck in Qasr al-Aini Street traffic caused by the protests, yelled, “They take tons of money in private tutoring, and have steady jobs with the government! What more do they want!?”

A teacher held a sign reading “90 percent of teachers in Egypt do not give private tutoring, where can we get extra money from!?”

Parents in Bani Suef governorate reacted to the boycott by setting alight a school last week. “The parents weren’t immediately with us. But in my school once they found out that what we want to do has more to do with education reform, they backed off and decided to give us space to protest,” said physics teacher Ibrahim Salamah, from the Monufiya Governorate.

Inherent in many of the protesters' demands is the realization that they belong to the populace affected by the low level of education. “I have a son in school, and I can’t blame his teacher for not teaching him because, like him, I know how difficult it is to teach knowing that I will need to take on extra jobs to feed my children,” Farag said.

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