CAIRO — In the sunlit reception area of Jana Dan International School in Cairo’s Maadi neighborhood, golden-framed certificates line a prominent wall. Next to international accreditation and state inspection documents is a notice to staff: “Please refrain from discussing politics at school.”
Through the halls and into a large courtyard flanked by the swimming pool are lines of smiling, laughing primary school children waiting for recess. It’s an atmosphere the school and parents have carefully tended and are now vigilantly guarding from the upheaval around them.
Jana Dan is one of dozens of private schools that have come under scrutiny from the government and media in recent months. Since the Sept. 23 ruling banning the Muslim Brotherhood, there has been talk of closing or commandeering “Brotherhood schools.”
The targeting is intended to be broad, applying not only to the group’s political work, but to its social and religious activities, as well as properties and businesses owned by members.
Estimates as to how many Brotherhood-owned schools there are across Egypt’s governorates have varied over the past three months. At one point, the number cited was 60. The latest list of schools to be put under closer state scrutiny numbers 147. The ministry announced it would nominate new heads for these schools and restructure their boards of directors.
Local media have launched a frenzied discussion of Brotherhood-influenced education, raising fears among parents of potential violence against the schools. Administrators at several schools are now wary to speak to the press, even in their own defense.
The schools are accused of making children sing “Jihadi, jihadi” instead of “Biladi, biladi” — “my country” — in the national anthem and of not requiring the students to salute the Egyptian flag. They are accused of inculcating loyalty to the Brotherhood over the nation and threatening national security.
Controversy has also centered on a textbook used in some schools in Assiut. According to the area’s governor, Major General Ibrahim Hammad, it glorifies the Palestinian movement Hamas.
These allegations fall within the prevalent rhetoric currently surrounding the Brotherhood, which describes it as an international organization with an agenda pursued regardless of Egypt’s interests, and as a threat to national security. Graduates of Brotherhood-affiliated schools who may join government institutions are believed to be intellectually aligned with the group, and hence a perceived threat to the state.
Controversy has focused on private schools rather than schools serving poor Egyptians.
Ashraf al-Sherif, a scholar and researcher on the Brotherhood, says that if the government cracked down on Brotherhood-affiliated mainstream schools and services nationwide, it would not be able to fill the gap. This is a common analysis of the Brotherhood’s success at playing a socio-cultural role in lieu of the state in recent decades.
“The government is attacking the Brotherhood politically, but will not really attack its socio-cultural presence,” Sherif adds.
If not closed, then supervised
While there have been calls to shut down Brotherhood schools, Minister of Education Mahmoud Abul Nasr has made several comments to the media clarifying that schools will not be closed, but those found violating ministry standards will be placed under administrative and financial supervision. Repeated calls by Mada Masr to the ministry’s press office went unanswered.
An earlier version of the ministry’s list included an additional 85 schools, reportedly removed primarily because they have non-Brotherhood co-owners. Among these was Jana Dan, the school says.
Sherif notes that the Brotherhood has plenty of experience functioning as a semi-clandestine operation. “They know how to practice double ownership, or transfer ownership when necessary,” he says.
Meanwhile, in her talk show on privately owned satellite channel CBC, Lamis al-Hadidi has almost goaded the Ministry of Education to do more, criticizing it for focusing on administrative violations and sending people “to go and sit in the accounting room.”
“What is more important than even the weapons stored in these schools,” she said in a segment aired on Nov. 11, “are the weapons in the minds of children.”
She expressed concern that generations would emerge from such schools hating the military and police, and claimed that Brotherhood schools were a “ticking bomb” before asking if the ministry was living up to its role.
Hadidi listed by name 40 schools that she claimed belong to the Brotherhood.
At one of the schools, Al-Medina al-Manawara Language School in Siuf to the west of Alexandria, fears of being targeted are acute — it was raided late at night on Oct. 30. Several media outlets, both state and privately owned, reported that security forces had found fake army uniforms and computers containing Brotherhood plans to cause chaos in Alexandria and Cairo.
Hoda Rashid, a member of Al-Medina al-Manawara’s public relations staff, says security forces stole computers and money during the raid. She denies media claims that the school is owned by Muslim Brotherhood members. Media reports say it is owned by Gomaa Amin, a member of the Brotherhood Guidance Bureau now residing in London, but the school claims his role is as a director.
“Those ‘army uniforms’ were part of a play,” says Marwa, mother of two sons at the boys’ school and a daughter at the girls’ school down the street, who did not give her last name. “There was a costume for a peasant, and one for a doctor, one for an engineer and one for an officer. It was something completely ordinary.”
Lobna Youssef Mohamed, another parent and staff member, says, “If all this talk were true, weapons and so on, we would be the first to remove our kids. Our kids are the priority.”
A politics-free learning zone
Parents, staff and children contest media claims that teachers encourage students to demonstrate against the government. There is not even discussion of politics in class, they say.
“We come to school to learn, not to talk about politics,” says 9-year-old Mazen. “What happens in the country doesn’t concern us. What concerns us is that our school doesn’t close.”
His mother, Marwa, says his siblings also worry the school will be shut down.
Marwa’s children initially heard the school was in the news from other students, and then started looking online to read for themselves, she says. She found Mazen gathering his certificates to put online as evidence of how much he has learned. As part of a class assignment following the raid, his sister wrote an allegory that pits a child against the ruler of a town.
“What upset them most was hearing that their school is teaching them terrorism and how to use weapons,” she adds.
The security director at the local government education office has little to say about the raid.“What happens outside of school hours does not concern us,” says Mohamed Qotb. “Our concern is adherence to the curriculum and ministerial regulations.”
“In the Ministry of Education,” he adds, “we do not talk about Brotherhood schools. That is not an official term.”
The ministry sends committees to inspect private schools on a regular basis and investigates any complaints.
Qotb says they did not find evidence of violations at the school. No exceptional moves have been taken, he adds. “What the media says does not concern us. We don’t respond to scandals.”
Such a discrepancy between different arms of the state — a raid on the one hand, and on the other a visit from the local education office that finds no violations — is unsurprising, Sherif says.
“This agenda comes from the Cabinet and the national security apparatus, so intelligence, the Ministry of Interior and military institutions,” he says. “The Ministry of Education, here, is just a bureaucratic executing body.”
Jana Dan was named on Hadidi’s TV program and has been given particular attention in the press. Several media outlets have described it as among the most famous Brotherhood schools, claiming that the daughter of wealthy Brotherhood figure Khairat al-Shater, seen as one of the group’s most powerful men, is its owner. School officials say she is a parent, not an owner, and that her husband is chairman of the school board.
Speaking for the school
In response to the controversy at Jana Dan, a number of fathers — several with more than one child at the school — came together. The school administration did not wish to speak to the media, but authorized the parents’ committee to sit down with Mada Masr in its stead.
“I decided to take the role of investigator, not the defender, because the first priority is my kids — they come number one, and maybe before number one,” says Ahmad al-Gendy, owner of a medical supply company and father of two daughters in the primary school.
A group of fathers went to the ministry demanding a meeting and were allowed to speak to the minister the next day. Two fathers claim that Abul Nasr gave them private assurances that were quite different from his public comments.
“In terms of what I heard from the minister himself,” says parent Nidal Sakr, “He the minister said: ‘I know this is one of the top schools we have in the country and I know the elite puts kids in this school.’ Here’s the problem: He goes on TV or in newspapers and says something completely different.”
Instead of assuaging their fears, the meeting and subsequent committee inspections the parents and school say cleared Jana Dan of violations have further angered the fathers.
“I mean, have some respect,” Sakr says. “Respect our intelligence at least.”
With regard to media claims that the school is owned by Shater’s daughter, Khadija, or her husband Ahmed Darwish, the dads say they have seen documentation listing Jana Dan’s 24 partners. Not only is none associated with the Brotherhood, they say, but some work in state intelligence or are former diplomats.
One father, Hesham Galal, quips that the problem could be solved if Shater and Darwish divorced. Galal wrote a piece published in the state-run Al-Ahram daily rebutting claims that students do not sing the national anthem and discussing the school’s ownership.
But even if Shater’s daughter were the school’s owner, they say, it would not be an issue.
“We don’t have prejudice against anyone, especially those who are good to the community,” Sakr says.
Even when not explicitly discussing the school, they appear keen to address the accusations leveled against them, asserting for instance how much they love Egypt. Galal, a shareholder in a telecommunications company, mentions he travels a lot for work to avoid moving his family abroad. “I have had a lot of opportunities to work outside Egypt, but I refused them,” he says, adding how much he enjoyed his own education in an experimental national school.
These fathers have sought to shield their children from what Gendy describes as a “wild media campaign.”
Galal says he avoids talking about the matter in front of his sons, but is concerned about times, like when they are with friends, when he cannot protect them.
A “moral” education
While all are concerned about their sons’ and daughters’ safety, they have not considered removing their children. Indeed, none of the parents that Mada Masr spoke to at several schools wanted to transfer their children elsewhere.
“I always want to keep my kids at this school,” says Sherif Mohamed, an EgyptAir pilot who has three children at Jana Dan. “See, it’s a war against our identity, and if we let it go, we won’t find it anymore.”
They also say that choice is limited, as dozens of other elite private schools have the same problem.
A combination of high educational standards and a proper moral upbringing are what attracted most of these parents to Jana Dan.
Galal says he was attracted by the school’s “Islamic flavor” and the fact that it “provides our children with spiritual, ethical and moral values in a practical way.”
“The main reason I stay here is that my children learn moral codes, not the education,” Mohamed says. “What I see in my kids is that they act as Muslims should. They learn morals without stress, without being forced, and they are happy to show us.”
When Sakr, also an American citizen, was looking for an international education for his daughter, he did not consider American schools in Cairo. “I wouldn’t want my daughter at eight years old to be dating her classmate … and that’s my right. Nobody is going to tell us how to raise our kids.”
After several Ministry of Education inspections, the parents hope the media attention will die down, but say they are prepared to take whatever legal, peaceful means necessary to ensure their children have a safe learning environment.
“I will fight tooth and nail,” Sakr says. “Nobody is going to get to my kid or the environment where I have entrusted them, period.”