Arriving at the gates of Badr International School unannounced, I’m able to easily pass through without even having to show my ID. This is the first clue that the military-owned school is not the fortified military zone that some of its critics imagine it to be.
Badr looks like any other International school in Egypt. Its vast reception area is decorated with childish art and, next to the Egyptian flag which hovers over the hall, hang the American and British flags indicating the two educational systems that the school offers.
Inaugurated in March 2015, the school is gearing up to embark on its second academic year. Many of its managers and staff see their role not only in educational terms but as a patriotic duty, holding themselves responsible for enhancing the image of the military and introducing activities that develop the nationalistic sentiments of the students.
The school principal Magda Wahba comes out to greet me and immediately starts complaining about the backlash that poured in as soon as the news that the Armed Forces was building a school circulated.
She bitterly recounts one of the jokes circulated on social media about the school, which speculates that they must be cleaning the floors with the detergent brand called “General.”
“The military didn’t build the school to serve itself. The military wanted to provide a service for the country and create a superior level of education that you can’t find anywhere, they won’t gain anything out of it, but people have no appreciation,” she laments.
Despite the adoption of the American educational system in the school, Wahba believes that a US conspiracy is behind the backlash against the school. Her explanation for her theory is unorthodox.
“There’s a fortune teller in America whose prophecies all come true. He predicted that in one of the Arab countries there will be a president who pretends to represent Islam, though he is far from it,” she describes, “and that the president who comes next would unite the Arab region and destroy the American economy. That president will have a name made up of two repeated syllables — he means Sisi.”
The school has come under the spotlight over the past month, with articles and sarcastic comments on social media arguing that the military lacks the necessary expertise to run an educational institution and objecting to the military’s recent involvement in several economic sectors.
General Osama Askar, the commander of the Third Field Army based in Suez, had announced in November 2013 that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, defense minister at the time, had ratified a decision to build an international school on a 30-acre area in Salam City at a site where there was a military camp moved outside of the city.
My visit coincides with a visit from three members of the school’s new board, who are about to do an inspection tour of the school and agree to let me join them. A public relations employee takes us around the vast campus ending in the sports complex, which includes a pool and several courts for different sports.
According to Hisham Abdallah, who introduces himself as the school’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO), the new board is not only the management board, but should also be considered the new owners, as they have leased the school from the military and are now in charge.
The three board members refuse to reveal the details of their agreement with the military, saying that a press conference to be held soon would clarify these.
Both CFO Abdalla and Principal Wahba assert that the military’s involvement ended after building the school and handing it over to its civilian management and that its role is now limited to “making sure that everything is running smoothly.”
The school’s Facebook page, however, suggests military involvement beyond the remote supervision described by the school’s management. A decision regarding fees published on the page in March, for instance, was signed by Brigadier General Ahmed Fathy Khalifa. Several pictures posted on the page also show the visit of Presidential Advisor for National Security Fayza Aboul Naga to the school for its inauguration in March 2015 accompanied by several military commanders, some of whom are seen guiding her through the tour. In another post on the page, we see a number of military men in uniform occupying the front row at a school recital held last year.
Principal Wahba explains that the management invites military commanders to events as a courtesy and they usually stay for a short time and leave to attend to their other responsibilities.
Mayada Bassem, the parent of two children in the school at the KG and primary stages says the commander of the Third Field Army was present at the school every month for the board’s meetings throughout the previous academic year in addition to the regular presence on the campus of other military commanders to oversee operations.
For Bassem, this is not problematic. “The military is running all of Egypt, why would I be concerned about it running a school?”
The first year for the school was not the epitome of excellence and discipline the management had hoped it would be. A number of staff concede that the first academic year was chaotic, blaming it on the management board selected by the military and replaced this year, along with a large number of teachers and staff, giving parents and staff alike hope for a fresh and smoother start.
Bassem says some of the teachers who were employed in the first year were not qualified, while some classes had no assigned teachers and some parts of the facilities were not complete.
Despite her insistence on the limited involvement of the military in the school’s management, Principal Wahba doesn’t hide the fact that serving the military — which she considers her patriotic duty — is her main motivation for working in the school.
“We want to prove that when the military does something it does it right,” she says, “and show that Egypt can reach an international level in education and reach the top.”
Ghada Hassan, the head of the German language section and life coach at the school, shares this sentiment.
“I work here because the school is affiliated with the military,” she says. “I feel that I’m serving my country and not serving owners like I would in other schools, I feel I’m building something and changing education in Egypt.”
The school’s official website echoes this connection, declaring that the school is a goal that Egypt’s Armed Forces has had for years and is finally being implemented successfully by the primary decision maker and supervisor himself, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. The description also declares: “We proudly follow the code of conduct of Egypt’s Armed Forces.”
Wahba says that, apart from its academic standards, the school distinguishes itself by focusing on developing patriotism through activities including field trips to all of Egypt’s tourist attractions.
Despite the aspiration to develop the students’ national pride, both Wahba and CFO Abdallah express significant pride in the fact that the school employs foreigners and that many of its Egyptian staff members have studied or worked abroad.
Wahba clarifies that the school chose only foreigners “who love Egypt” to work in it.
Indeed, Nadia Bustamante, the American principal of kindergarten, tells Mada Masr that she loves President Sisi more than her own president.
“I wish my military would do to the people what the Egyptian military is doing. It doesn’t only protect, it also cares to provide its people with high-quality affordable education,” she says, although critics disagree with her assessment of the school fees — which start at LE20,000 for kindergarten according to the school website — as affordable.
Bustamante says she is happy that the military is taking a step back this year and leaving it to education experts, while asserting her awe at the service the military has gifted to the people by building this school, which she thinks will help strengthen the connection of the students with their country.
“We have to show them what their country has to offer them to guarantee that even if they leave, they will come back again,” she says. “They have to learn to be proud of what they have.”