Farida Makar and Ehaab Abdou, “Egyptian Textbooks in Times of Change 1952-1980,” Arab Studies Journal, Spring 2021, Volume XXIX, No. 1, pp. 6-43.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?

Farida Makar and Ehaab Abdou (FM & EA): There was a spike in interest in textbook and curriculum studies in Egypt following the 2011 uprising—perhaps because of the public’s interest in identity, education reform, and current affairs at the time. So, prior to writing the article, both of us had worked on separate projects related to Egyptian textbooks. Farida worked on a project which sought to explore whether there were major changes to textbook content following the 2011 uprising. At the same time, Ehaab was busy undertaking research for his PhD and was in the process of publishing several pieces related to how Egyptian textbooks present the country’s history, including particular historic events or groups. Ehaab’s analyses have been published as book chaptersacademic articles, and opinion pieces.

Having read each other’s work, sometime in 2015, we decided to join forces and collaborate on a longer piece together, since we were both interested in the Nasser period and in trying to understand whether the contemporary textbooks we had spent so much time analyzing were linked to their predecessors. In other words, we were interested in looking at continuities and changes in the narrative. We also wanted to write something that combined our different approaches and respective specializations, namely history (Farida) and educational and curriculum studies (Ehaab). We felt the need to address an existing gap in the literature which has tended to either narrowly analyze textbooks without proper contextualization or to assume too many parallels between political discourse and textbook content. Instead, our piece is aimed at demonstrating the role of post-1952 state functionaries and the bureaucracy in the development and maintenance of textbook content.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?

FM & EA: Our article intersects with bureaucratic history, intellectual history, and curriculum studies. It provides both an analysis of the bureaucratic structures that facilitated the development of textbooks in Egypt between 1952 and 1980, as well as a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of those textbooks. The article also brings to light new perspectives on education policies under Nasser and Sadat and thereby explores a time period that remains understudied in terms of curriculum policy and education policy at large.

J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

FM: I was familiar with the interwar period and its education system and was also aware of the contemporary period, having worked on post-2011 textbooks. This new piece addresses a time period that I had not focused on before, but which had a major influence on the development of textbooks in the second half of the twentieth century.

EA: As can be seen in some of my earlier publications, I have sometimes taken an archival and historical approach to my textbook analyses, critically engaging with continuities and changes over time. So, in a sense, this article is a continuation and a deepening of some of those earlier efforts. However, thanks to our joint collaboration, this is the first time I have taken such a holistic approach that not only looks at the textbooks’ narratives and their continuities and changes over time, but also deeply analyzes other historical dynamics and dimensions. These include the ideologies and training of textbook authors, bureaucratic considerations, and so on—topics that are often neglected in scholarly textual analyses of curricula.

J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

FM & EA: We hope that historians of the Middle East, historians of education, and scholars of education and curriculum studies in the region and elsewhere will find this article useful for their work. It is also our hope that this article will be the beginning of a larger interest in the bureaucratic and institutional history of educational establishments across the region. Although textbook studies do explore the larger context, they often focus on political discourse or major political changes and try to draw parallels between the content emerging in the texts and larger political developments. We do not deny that these parallels exist, but what we showcase in this study is that they are normally facilitated via a bureaucratic structure that is usually overlooked. Our hope is that these bureaucratic structures will be more fully considered by other scholars because of their potential to reveal misalignments, tensions, and coincidences and to shed more light on the textbook development process itself.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

FM: I am currently writing up my PhD dissertation on the history of progressive education in Egypt from 1922 to 1956 at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. I am hoping to submit the final draft in 2022. It has actually been a lot of fun working on both projects simultaneously because I have been able to follow some of my interlocutors well into the 1970s, since some of them ended up developing textbooks later on in their careers.

EA: I am busy trying to turn my doctoral thesis—which focuses on curriculum and how it shapes Egyptian students’ understanding of history and their civic engagement—into a book manuscript. I am also really enjoying and keeping busy helping co-edit two edited volumes: one with some prominent Egyptian Egyptologists, and another with my colleague Dr. Theodoros G. Zervas. critically analyzing representations of ancient and Indigenous (pre-Abrahamic) belief systems in school textbooks, with contributions from several scholars from across the world.

J: Can you tell us a bit more about how you obtained your sources?

FM & EA: There were extensive trips to the Ministry of Education’s archives to read through all history textbooks that were published between 1952 and 1980, and to compile the data we needed. The staff working there were quite welcoming, supportive, and receptive. We also looked into earlier texts for comparative purposes, which turned out to be crucial given the continuities in authorship and in content that we uncovered—a central finding of our piece. A little bit of detective work followed: we had to figure out when certain texts were discontinued in order to trace how long texts were in circulation and when they were replaced by newer ones, since this information is not directly available in the Ministry’s records. We then compiled lists of the authors and proceeded to locate them in the literature, the press, and in obituaries. While the Ministry of Education archives house an important collection, internal reports, memos, and policies are limited. The majority of these sources are located at the Egyptian National Archives, which are extremely difficult to access. We therefore undertook additional trips to backstreet booksellers and second-hand markets, where we acquired a number of the Ministry’s publications, such as pamphlets outlining their education policy, or reports describing internal reform initiatives. These sources were vital in the identification of the Ministry’s textbook policy during the period of investigation.


Excerpt from the article (“Experimentation: Ad Hoc Committees in Transition 1952-1958,” pp. 14-18)

The existing literature portrays the 1952 revolution as a decisive rupture in textbook content, suggesting that the new military-led regime was quick to alter textbooks. Some historians have explored the rise of previously marginalized amateur historians, such as ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Raf‘i, whose ideas of popular struggle contributed to a changing political discourse under Nasser, suggesting that similar changes made their way into curricula immediately after 1952. Within this literature, the appointment of Free Officer Kamal al-Din Hussein as minister of education in 1954 was the “final nail in the coffin” for textbook plurality. For example, Yoram Meital argues that a new political line was evident in textbooks as early as one year into military rule. Meital cites a nationalist chapter in a 1953 secondary school Arabic-language textbook, whose title he translates as “The Nationality of the Student” (“Wataniyyat al-Tilmidh”). But the chapter “Wataniyyat al- Tilmidh” had appeared in a 1940 Arabic-language textbook. Brand also suggests that textbook committees changed history content early on, but Brand references only one particular textbook, Tarikh Misr fi al-‘Asr al- Hadith (The History of Egypt in the Modern Age) from 1954.

Instead of selecting particular textbooks from 1953 to 1954, we examined all history textbooks that the Egyptian Ministry of Education produced between roughly 1950 and 1960 in relation to their predecessors while paying particular attention to the authors and their links to the ME. In both the primary and the secondary level, these included authors from the earlier generation such as Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahim Mustafa and Mustafa al-Duqmayri, and a few newcomers including ‘Abd al-Hamid al-Batriq, Muhammad Wasif Hums, Mustafa al-Shihabi, and Abu al-Futuh Radwan.

Judging by the year of publication alone, it appears as though new textbooks coincided with political turning points (1953, 1954, 1956), supporting the arguments made by Meital and others. But the persistence of textbook authors across this period complicates this analysis. Academic historians from the pre-1952 period such as Shafiq Ghurbal and Muhammad Rif‘at remained moderately influential until 1955, when schools stopped teaching their works. On some level, Ghurbal’s influence persisted indirectly through his three students Ahmad ‘Izzat ‘Abd al-Karim, ‘Abd al-Hamid al-Batriq, and ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Shinnawi. This “trio” represented the new generation of textbook authors. Even though these students came to embrace the new historiographical trends favored by the Nasser regime, Ghurbal’s “professionalism” and his school’s reliance on primary sources and footnoting also persisted in Taha Hussein’s collection of historical primary sources, Selected Episodes from History Textbooks, which schools used from 1954 to 1957. While many earlier generation historians gradually disappeared from the list, ministry inspectors did not. In fact, inspectors Ibrahim Sayfuldin, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahim Mustafa, and Ahmad Hassuna were the leading authors throughout this time period, suggesting a certain degree of continuity.

A second complication arises when we consider these dates not as political turning points, but as bureaucratic and pedagogical ones. While political considerations most certainly had a bearing on the choice of new authors, the establishment of preparatory school, an entirely new school level, resulted in the production of many of the new textbooks published in 1953, 1954 and 1956. The ME began discussing the importance of preparatory schooling in the late 1940s. Law 142 of 1951 established a preparatory level within secondary schools, then a series of laws in 1953 separated this level into its own school, which became fully independent in 1956. This process mandated a reorganization of some curricula in other levels, which helps explain the emergence of new textbooks in those particular years across all school levels.

Establishing the preparatory level provided an opportunity for the ministry to experiment with new textbook committees, invite a new generation of authors (such as Ghurbal’s trio) and introduce new content. These new authors introduced textbook content that was compatible with the day’s political discourse. Thus, preparatory-level textbooks were the first to reflect a shift in tone. They produced fourteen new history textbooks between 1954 and 1960 for the new four-year preparatory level. One of these was the trio’s textbook debut in 1954, referenced by Brand, which they coauthored with Abu al-Futuh Radwan, a graduate of Columbia University’s Teachers College and doyen of education at ‘Ayn Shams University. Once these authors had established themselves at the preparatory level, they gradually went on to author texts at the primary and secondary levels. Inspectors Sayfuldin and ‘Abd al-Rahim Mustafa authored six of those fourteen textbooks, and the ME even briefly employed Muhammad Rif‘at to develop a textbook on Islamic history in 1954.

The case of Ghurbal’s student ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Shinnawi demonstrates that political developments could be entirely disconnected from the ME’s bureaucratic inner workings. In 1955, the Nasser regime accused Shinnawi of espionage, arrested him, and tortured him, for having smuggled important historical documents pertaining to the Suez Canal to France on the eve of the Suez Crisis. Even though Shinnawi spent two years in prison, the ME did not discontinue using the history textbook he coauthored for the preparatory level in 1954, or omit his name. In fact, schools used his textbook at least until 1959.

More fundamentally, our textual analysis revealed that many of the changes to textbook content were, in fact, largely cosmetic. Often, the authors simply changed the book’s title while retaining the same content. For example, the 1955 primary school history textbook authored by Sayfuldin et al., originally titled Suwar Min al-Tarikh al-Misri (Images from Egyptian History), became Suwar Min al-Tarikh al-Qawmi (Images from National History) in 1956. Far from constituting a major shift in discourse, changing the title was a convenient way to mask and recycle old content. In the words of Abu al-Futuh Radwan, “The popular revolutionary orientation has allowed the authors to see things that they could not see in the past. Texts once titled, ‘Muhammad Ali, Founder of Modern Egypt’ became ‘The Affirmation of National Consciousness and the Role of the People in the Ascent of Muhammad Ali to Power.’”

Changes to history textbooks in the 1950s did not immediately mirror radical political ruptures. Rather, a combination of factors shaped textbook development, including bureaucratic inertia, convenience, and the introduction of preparatory schools. At the same time, the initial phase of textbook experimentation, especially at the preparatory level, left a space for the coexistence of competing historical voices, narratives, and approaches at least until 1958.