Egypt’s Young and Restless

Through Islam and the Internet, a new generation seeks its fair share.


Al-Azhar is one of the oldest mosques on the continent of Africa, and to it is attached the oldest university, founded in 972. Even then, the mosque was a center of learning as well as prayer, and members of the community would offer grants to assist poor students in their studies. This concept is the origin of the college system in the West.

Mary Knight

Perhaps even more detrimental is the lack of functioning, up-to-date laboratory apparatus in science education. Osama ‘Abd al-Raheem and several of his friends told me that as many as sixty students typically crowd around their professor as he performs experiments for the class. The reason is that nearly all of the aging equipment is broken. “The classes are crowded,” he says, “so it’s hard for the students to understand. So we just memorize the lessons.” Memorization is still the preferred method of learning in all disciplines, but in the sciences, the near total lack of hands-on experimental work suppresses the critical and creative skills needed to excel.

Painfully aware that their futures rest on the successful use of mouse and keyboard, Egyptian young people seek out the new technology. Cybercafés and computer training institutes now abound throughout Cairo, though all charge relatively high fees. Industrious youths save up the 2,000 to 3,000 Egyptian pounds (between $400 and $600) needed for a computer, then add peripherals, often secondhand, as their budgets permit. In the past few years, Egypt’s relatively open society has helped the country surpass most of the rich Gulf states in factors that measure computer-related growth. Internet connections, for instance, are now free, though the phone charges, which are based on the amount of time spent online, are relatively expensive. That said, the percentage of all Egyptians who have ever accessed the Internet remains in the single digits.

Among those energetically devoting themselves to improving the lot of young people are what are coming to be called the “new Islamists”—Muslims who believe their primary duty is to live exemplary lives and thereby improve the community. (By contrast, militants strive first to rid the world of disbelievers, condoning violence in the process.) Hosam Muhammad, a sturdily built twenty-nine-year-old, and his colleague Hisham Muhammad, a fine-boned, quiet-mannered twenty-three-year-old, both teach English in al-Nozha Language School, a clean and orderly Islamic school on the northeastern outskirts of Cairo. The school serves about a thousand students, from kindergarten through high school. Both men use the Internet to enhance their knowledge and to make friends with English speakers around the world, particularly in the U.S.

In their jackets and ties, dress slacks, and polished shoes, the two Arabs, one clean-shaven and the other wearing a neatly trimmed beard, look like refined, educated young professionals anywhere. Polite and modest, they laugh readily and banter charmingly, in English or in Arabic. And both strongly maintain that Islam has a transformative, restorative power for their society. In the classroom they teach values through example, as a way to complement their curriculum of intensive language training. Their ultimate jihad is to push their students along the path to a better future, both economically and morally.

Another “new Islamist” is ‘Abd al-Hafiz al-Sayyid Muhammad, the imam, or chief religious leader, at Omar Makram Mosque in downtown Cairo. In 1995, recognizing the need for knowledge and the traditional role of the mosque in education, ‘Abd al-Hafiz initiated computer courses in rooms above the prayer hall, diverting some of the mosque’s funding to the purchase of computers. (Literacy classes were already in place, for men and women.) Students—more than a thousand a year—flocked to the innovative program, not only to learn computer skills but also to learn English and a variety of vocational skills.

Women like Nermeen ‘Abd al-Tawab, a vivacious twenty-eight-year-old at the University of Cairo’s Faculty of Agriculture, exemplify another vibrant part of Egypt’s young generation. Her specialization, agricultural research, is one of the few bright spots in Egyptian science, perhaps because 44 percent of Egyptian workers are employed in agriculture. She studies the fungal infection white rot in garlic. White rot has important economic consequences, because it often devastates the bulbs as the garlic goes to market. As part of her doctoral research, Nermeen is applying the tools of biotechnology to develop garlic that is resistant to the virus. Thus occupied, she is postponing marriage until she finds someone she loves and respects. Her family supports her plan completely.

Compared with urbanites, girls from rural areas are apt to find less family support for their education, particularly when one or both of their parents are illiterate. Rural parents encourage their daughters to marry at earlier ages, even if that means marrying a first cousin (usually not a girl’s preference). But in Cairo education is a lifeline for many females, giving them hope and freedom no matter how humble (or how high) their origins. While they are in school, they don’t have to compete for jobs that are unlikely to be offered to them anyway. And if they enjoy studies, they have the chance to learn more than any of their predecessors and to be respected for their achievements.

The social barriers to women in Egypt are by no means as stringent as they are in Muslim countries that impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Some Egyptian women even initiate divorce.

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