The ‘zero student’: The tale of an inconsistent state

For Egyptian students and their families, thanaweya amma, Egypt’s high school examination system, is largely considered a nerve-racking year-long ordeal. It is one that concludes with a score that will be a determining factor for the student’s whole future and that is the product of a deeply flawed and sometimes arbitrary process.

Ever since A-grade student Mariam Malak was shocked to get zero percent when the local high school exams results were announced in mid-July, she has been on a rollercoaster ride of support and condemnation from different representatives of the state.

Different arms of the state appeared to take opposite approaches in dealing with the young woman, widely described in local media as the “zero student.”

Minister of Education Sayed Abdel Khalek acted as adversary to Malak as soon as the student from Upper Egypt went public with her claims. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, on the other hand, showed sympathy by meeting with her and reassuring her that she would be served justice.

All the while, a legal process to determine her fate has several times appeared to reach its end only to be resumed, informing — and possibly informed by —the social and political responses to the matter.

Shortly after the results were announced, Malak went public with her story, speculating that her papers were switched with those of the son or daughter of someone powerful to guarantee him or her high grades.

Even before the requisite procedures to deal with the student’s claims were concluded, the education minister all but asserted that her claims were invalid.

In a number of statements to the media, including a phone interview with talk show host Wael Ebrashi, on “Al-Ashera Masa’an” (10 pm) on satellite channel Dream TV, Abdel Khalek asserted that Mariam’s claims were very unlikely to be true. He asserted that a committee within the ministry had compared the handwriting in the answer sheets to that on her name cards — which she had conceded were hers — and determined that they matched.

In the phone interview, Abdel Khalek proceeded to discredit Malak’s claims further, asking why anyone would switch her papers in all the subjects, how someone in a crowded room could switch her papers unnoticed, and why if this were the case, there were no physical signs of the pin removal.

The minister went on to say that the prosecution’s criminal investigation would determine the truth and that if Malak’s claims turn out to be true, those responsible would be referred to prosecution.

This was arguably little more than a gesture toward courtesy or protocol, as he then added, in a threatening tone, that if she is shown to have made false accusations, the ministry would take “strict legal measures” against the student.

Later that month, the Forensics Authority gave its report: no sign of fraud. As a result, the prosecution concluded investigations in the case promptly after, determining that the handwriting in the answer sheets matches that of the student.

Malak had by this point been brought in to provide writing samples three times throughout the investigation.

The minister of education promptly followed this up with a victorious statement announcing that the ministry would take measures to punish students who make false accusations by not allowing them to take exams for three years.

Case closed. Well, not quite.

The forensics report and the prosecution’s decision only served to arouse more public sympathy for Malak, and further suspicion in the integrity of the state’s investigation. Many, including constitutional expert Mohamed Nour Farahat, voiced their doubts as to the authenticity of the forensics report and accused the Forensics Authority — notorious for falsifying reports of police-brutality related deaths — of making a politically motivated ruling.

In an attempt to appease public anger, the prime minister met with Malak shortly after the prosecution closed her case. He promised her that if she has rights she’ll get them and if she doesn’t, she’ll be informed of the reasons. He added that he would “support her like a daughter” until the truth is revealed.

As a matter of public concern involving a Coptic citizen, tradition dictated that another figure got involved. As expected, Pope Tawadros invited Malak for a meeting. Refusing to turn her case into a sectarian one, Malak rejected the invitation asserting that the injustice that fell upon her is unrelated to her religion and that she will get her rights through the law.

Malak’s appeal was accepted and the prosecution restarted investigations into the case last week, forming a five-member committee to reexamine her answer sheets and compare them to her writing samples.

The contradictory official response could be read as yet another symptom of a state apparatus that is incoherent, over-bureaucratic, and unable to communicate clearly even within itself. It could, on the other hand, be read as an indication of the dilemma in which Egyptian state authorities find themselves.

While the rhetoric of a war on terror has emboldened the state in the past two years, the fact that it was a death as the result of police torture that acted as a spark for the January 25 revolt does not appear to be completely forgotten.

Some officials appear to be hell-bent on fighting Malak to make sure she does not embolden others to stand up to the state as she has, while others recognize her case as one of such flagrant injustice that it may act as another spark, and feel the need to handle the situation more delicately. 

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