There were two formative years in my professional career, and they were five years apart.
In 2006 I returned to university study to take a summer course in sustainable development. And in 2011 I took part in the revolution of 25 January.
In 2006 I joined the Namaa’ Initiative summer program. I was working as a journalist for a well-known Egyptian publication, Al-Ahram. I also wanted to start a social enterprise to support professional development for journalists.
The program was sponsored by Cairo University and the German aid agency GIZ. The students in the class were a mixture of teaching assistants, recent medical school graduates, academic staff and students, all interested in developing skills and knowledge for serving their society.
The training was richly formative for the participants, especially because it used interactive teaching methods that most students had not experienced in their previous academic studies. The course, designed to build civil society and encourage a feeling that among students that they could “own” the country’s problems and find possible solutions, used exercises to stimulate thinking and to encourage the expression of opinion.
In one exercise, we were asked to choose between two courses of action. Do you comply with an unjust law imposed by the state? Or do you break the law in an attempt to apply pressure for change?
We were asked to divide into two groups according to our answer. At first, I joined the first group. How can a journalist be outside the law? The members of each group voiced their opinions, and after some discussion I decided to change my position and joined the second group. I felt no anxiety about changing my mind; indeed, I felt it was courageous to change a settled opinion when it is shown to be lacking.
In another exercise, the organizer asked one of the groups to stand together. Then she asked some of the members of this group to take a step forward, and then another step, away from other members of the group, in simulation of what happens in life. Then she asked, “Which of you will remember those who were with you in the group you came from?”
For me, the lesson was clear and simple: Progress in life is an opportunity that should be available to all, but it must not result in the fragmentation of society. Because a healthy society is one in which all groups feel connected, and remain connected, to each other.
Five years later, on the 25th of January 2011 the Egyptian revolution broke out, against the government of President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak. It was my good fortune to be present in Tahrir Square as a journalist, and also as a citizen and an eye-witness to the great developments that transformed the present and the future of my country.
It was remarkable that from the first days of the revolution, I saw the faces of many of the men and women I knew from the classroom of the Namaa’ Initiative, who came to Tahrir Square to take an active part in the most important political event to take place in our country in recent years.
Since then, I have asked myself if our participation together was just a coincidence. I don’t think so. Our passion about the progress of our country, which brought us together in the class five years earlier, also brought us together to protest peacefully in Tahrir Square. In that class we learned how to organize ourselves in groups, joined together by faith in an idea, and outside of what is called, in English, our “comfort zone.”
That is what happened in Tahrir Square. Our belief in change for the better led us to halt the routine of daily life in order to strike, to protest and to organize.
I remembered these events in recent weeks as I have reflected on the 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report, published by UNESCO. “Education,” it said, “makes it more likely that discontented citizens will channel their concerns through non-violent civil movements, such as protests, boycotts, strikes, rallies, political demonstrations and social non-cooperation and resistance.”
Of course, the relationship between education and unrest is more complicated than that. The report states that “more education is not automatically a panacea for the threat posed by the combination of mass unemployment and a high proportion of youth to adults. As was noted above, when education levels rise but labor markets are stagnant, the result can be a rapid increase in the number of better-educated young people resentful over their lack of prospects.”
But education based on the stimulation of critical thinking does not only lead to protest: it leads to the creation of solutions and new opportunities for development. Education has always been a weapon in the fight against ignorance, and a tool for progress. Unfortunately, in Arab societies it is still used as a weapon against young people, killing talent in its infancy through memorization and rote learning, rather than nurturing it by discussion and critical thinking.
I believe in what Confucius said 500 years ago: “Education creates trust, trust generates hope, and hope gives birth to peace.” But I also believe that learning how to learn is the most important thing now.
Recently, I was pleased to learn that the Namaa’ program is still going, despite the dark conditions now prevailing in Egypt. I hope that their experience can be brought to a wider public, to include students at all levels, from early years to high school, to give them tools that will help them shape their future.
Sabah Hamamou is an Egyptian journalist based in Istanbul. You can follow her on Twitter @SabahHamamou