Thursday, October 19, 2017

Egyptian Agenda Behind University Flag Ceremony

By: Michelle Michael
Produced & edited by: Trianna Connolly

Pledging allegiance to the flag is a common practice in the United States. Although this is widely exercised in schools, universities and colleges do not enforce this. Egyptian school students have also been revering the flag and the national anthem at the morning assembly for years. However, the recent order is forcing 2.5 million state university students to copy this daily routine in a flag ceremony held on the first day of classes each year.

Egypt Government Creates New Rule
In September 2017, Egypt decreed all public university students to salute the flag at the beginning of each academic year. According to BBC, which quoted the Higher Education Minister Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research issued this order with the intention of fostering patriotism in the younger generation. Those who violate the decree can risk up to a year in jail or 30,000 EGP in fines.

University students in Egypt are required to salute the flag at the beginning of each year.
Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
However, this decree was received by the public with widespread criticism and mockery.

The weekend following the order, the Arabic hashtag meaning “what do you think about saluting the flag?” trended on social media with many joking and criticizing the government for forcing patriotism amidst the public’s growing frustration about the state of the country and its future.

“The move can be simply seen in light of a bigger wave of nationalistic rhetoric dominating the country's public space since 2013,” says Mai Shams, the education reporter of Mada Masr, an Egypt-based media organization.

Shams explained that this rhetoric was used to justify the seizure of the political domain following the ouster of the former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. “In this rhetoric, nationalist slogans and propaganda are systematically used to portray an image of an honorable and strong country which defeated the traitors,” he added.

New Decree or New Distraction?
According to Shams, such slogans and nationalistic sentiments are also promoted as part of the war against terrorism. He echoed the views of many social media users saying that such petty orders are attempts to prevent the public from paying attention to more serious issues such as the collapsing education system, poor government spending on education and scientific research, socially unjust policies and many more.

Similar opinion was also voiced by Rasha El-Ibiary, Assistant Professor of Communication at the German University in Cairo: “I think it is just one of the decisions meant to divert people’s attention from issues that matter such as the quality of education, the budget directed to education and research, or the fact that Egypt is now outside the international ranking of education.”

El-Ibiary also considers the decision “absurd and overtly naïve.” She explained that singing the national anthem in the morning is a common practice in Egyptian public schools and even some private schools. But with the growing presence of international schools and universities, this practice has been slowly fading away. “This decision targets students of state universities who were raised on singing [the national anthem] at schools,” added El-Ibiary.

Comparing Patriotism 
If “patriotism” is defined as love for one’s country, “I don’t think this will instill any sort of patriotism,” says Basil El-Dabh, an Egyptian-American freelance researcher of Middle Eastern politics and a former Cairo-based journalist.

El-Dabh drew parallels between Egypt’s new decree and the American controversy surrounding NFL’s Take a Knee protest. Those who are against professional football players kneeling during the national anthem believe that the flag is a symbolic representation of patriotism. Similarly, the Egyptian government is now trying to equate saluting the flag as devotion to the country. However, simply venerating national symbols may not instill love for one’s nation.

“Nationalism in Egypt is a very powerful element that transcends any regime or political figure, so a lot of what we’ve seen over the last 7 years are successive regimes attempting to harness and co-opt this nationalism. Instilling measures like mandating the saluting of the flag is largely aimed to feed this nationalist appeal,” added El-Dabh.

Unlike many other public spaces, university campuses in Egypt have historically been a safe haven for free speech and political expression. This changed following the coup of 2013 in which the former President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the coalition led by the then army chief General and current President Abdel FattahEl-Sisi. Police, who were not allowed to enter campuses to crackdown on student protests can now enter campuses and do so quickly and violently.

Egypt's Fight for Control
Since 2015, student unions and political societies in universities have also been banned. As per BBC, Minister Abdel Ghaffer says "there will be no space for partisan activities in universities."

Commenting on such nationalistic policies being forced on university students, El-Dabh says that this may be due to the state’s need to “control the volatile segment of the population and restrict freedom of expression.”

Mohamed Abdallah, a student at Menoufia University in Egypt said that the decree produced a very small ceremony with poor attendance at his university. “We are not [school] students anymore to do such things,” he said. According to Abdallah, only the members of the Student Union participated in this short ceremony while many laughed at the absurd concept. He does not think that this order will be enforced strictly in the future.

Menoufia University is one of schools that has enforced the flag saluting decree in Egypt.
Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
“There is more diversity in universities than middle and high school,” says Omar Ebada, a second semester freshman at the American University in Cairo. Although his university does not have to comply to the decree as it is an international university, he believes that students from other countries at state universities should not be compelled to salute the flag. “As adults, we should not be forced to do anything,” he said. 

**Global Spotlight is a nonprofit educational production, constituting a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided under Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law.  

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