Dozens of students gathered in front of the Education Ministry in Cairo on Monday protesting the decision to postpone several thanaweya amma exams after the test papers were leaked online.
The students took their protest to Tahrir Square and the adjacent Mohamed Mahmoud Street after protesting at the ministry. Shortly after, police forces dispersed the students with what has been identified by eyewitnesses as pellet shots. Videos of the dispersal posted by eyewitnesses on social media show students running away while armored police vehicles chased them. Eyewitnesses also reported security forces arrested some of the demonstrators.
Other student protests against the deferment of the exams — which determine which public universities and faculties students may attend after completing high school — reportedly took place across the country, including Alexandria, Suez, Sharqiya, Assiut, Daqahliya, Port Said, Alexandria and Arish.
In Cairo, earlier on Monday students chanted angrily against the Education Ministry, climbing atop the building and holding banners reading, “We won’t postpone. We won’t repeat.” They were protesting in the blistering heat, and routinely doused each other in water so as not to dehydrate.
“We’re demanding the resignation of the ministry,” Islam Sayed, 19, told Mada Masr. “They’re the ones in charge of determining our futures, and they haven’t been able to take control of the situation, so now we are.”
The ministry postponed the final mechanics exam until July 2 after it was leaked on Facebook, while the algebra, history and geology exams were delayed to July 4. The Education Ministry had also delayed the religion exam earlier this month after both the Arabic language and religion exams were leaked hours before an estimated 560,000 students were supposed to sit them.
“We just want to finish [these exams],” thanaweya amma student Lina, 18, exclaimed at Monday’s protest. “The leaks are their problem, not ours. Why should we pay for their failures?”
Protesting students seemed unfazed by the security presence in front of the ministry and the risk of potential security intervention, given that demonstrations like these violate Egypt’s strict protest laws.
Mai, 18, argued that the protests were “peaceful” and did not warrant any intervention.
“We don’t care [what the police do], there can be no hesitation – this is our future. If they get rid of us today, we’ll come back tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after,” Mostafa, 18, told Mada Masr. “We will keep escalating until something happens.”
In a press conference Monday, Education Ministry Al-Helaly al-Sherbiny defended the ministry’s decision to cancel Sunday’s mechanics exam, stating that the ministry wants to ensure equal opportunity among students and guarantee students’ rights by ensuring that they enroll in universities that match their qualifications.
Sherbiny said the ministry is adamant on enforcing transparency and instilling “high moral values” among students, encouraging them to steer clear of cheating.
“We acknowledge the repercussions, but on the other hand, we need to instill high moral values and preserve students’ rights so that no one earns a spot in a university that he or she doesn’t deserve,” Sherbiny explained. “We are bringing children up to see that if you want to be a good person and to contribute to developing your society, your life shouldn’t be built on cheating.”
The Education Ministry has seemingly been unable to deal with organized cheating, in which exams are leaked online through social media and using other technological means. The most notorious Facebook page used to leak exams is called Chao Ming Helps Thanaweya Amma Students Cheat, which still appears to be functioning normally, despite state media reports that the page’s administrator has been arrested.
Nadia, a mother of a thanaweya amma student participating in the protest, lamented the situation. “The ministry has had a lot of time to prepare for leaking exams — cheating happens every year,” she argued. “My son has been studying and taking private lessons all year. Why should he be the one who suffers when it is the ministry that is incompetent?”
Another mother, Madiha, agreed. “How can they cancel and postpone the examinations now after they’ve begun? It’s not fair to these students.”
“The minister is a failure,” she asserted. “These kids are going to revolt if the situation is not solved.”
Egypt’s thanaweya amma examinations have been the subject of increasing criticism over recent years for their reliance on rote memorization amid wider concerns about the ailing education sector, in which schools are understaffed, teachers are underpaid and students rely on costly private lessons in order to get by. Students at the protest complained especially of the entry requirements into colleges, a system that places students into schools based solely on their thanaweya amma scores.
The ministry has declared it would implement a number of measures to confront “electronic cheating,” including imposing harsh sentences on those found to have leaked exams. The Interior Ministry also announced the arrest of a number of officials working for the Education Ministry’s “secret print houses,” where examination papers are printed — but all to no avail, as examinations papers are still being leaked.
Last October, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a law imposing prison sentences of up to one year and fines ranging from LE20,000-50,000 for anyone caught leaking exams through printing, broadcasting or any other means of publication.
When asked if he thinks the ministry will respond to the students’ protests, Khaled, 17, said, “They have to listen. What are they, deaf?”