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Education as Resistance: Rethinking Political Education Under Authoritarian Contexts

by Nadim Mirshak on August 30, 2019

As established in my first blog post, Egypt has been undergoing a complex transformation process exacerbated by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ever-growing authoritarianism. As a result, I argued that we were not only required to analyse the various soft and hard methods of repression employed to repress Egyptian civil society and oppositional forces more generally, but crucially to rethink resistance practices under authoritarian contexts. In a paper recently published in Critical Sociology, I build on this exploration of the interplay between authoritarianism and resistance by focusing on the educational activities provided by an amalgam of Egyptian CSOs (or Civil Society Organisations: political organisations and movements, rights-based organisations and educational organisations) where I argue that education should comprise a central component of initiatives directed towards initiating social change and challenging authoritarianism.

I focus on political education (PE) which represents an approach to learning about politics, rights and duties and that seeks to develop critical consciousness of the existing political, economic and socio-cultural conditions in order to challenge them. This approach takes the radical character of Antonio Gramsci’s education as its starting point for a number of reasons. First, since there is a necessary educational element to any relation of hegemony (Gramsci, 1971: 350), education must be considered as a vital aspect of any social transformation (Mayo, 2014). Second, education is considered in its broadest sense whereby it can take place across many sites located within civil society where ‘educational/hegemonic relationships’ are consolidated and challenged (Mayo, 2016: 119). This, I develop in my paper with the help of Adam David Morton (2007) and Andreas Bieler et al. (2015), is crucial to considering the growth of Egyptian movements and CSOs taking place outside mainstream politics. Third, this understanding of education also entails a broader notion of the educator which includes a diverse set of practitioners (Mayo, 2014, 2015).

Building on the above, I argue that PE must account for the experiences of young adults and children. Moreover, and given the backdrop of al-Sisi’s authoritarianism, it becomes imperative to offer PE that does not attract unwanted state attention and subsequent repression. In other words, and in keeping with my arguments for locating alternative methods of resistance, I suggest broadening the conceptualisation of PE by considering its direct and indirect manifestations. Direct PE refers to an approach that is overtly political, which is reflected in its terminology, objectives and content, and where the aim is to teach about politics, rights and duties therefore making the content and objectives explicitly politicised.

Indirect PE is more covert in comparison and less explicit in teaching about politics, where the terminologies are often toned down, and the educational content and practices do not necessarily allude to anything overtly critical of the regime. This approach usually takes the form of games and simulations which may appear in hindsight apolitical, but could end up having numerous political implications. On one hand, these educational activities can be capable of offering opportunities to contest the hegemonic terrain. On the other hand, they can alternatively neutralise and absorb the oppositional and radical elements found in civil society (i.e. perform passive revolutionary functions).

The CSOs I analysed employed a variety of direct and indirect PE. Direct PE was most popularly employed by political parties and rights-based organisations. It consists of: political seminars that aim to develop awareness of contemporary Egyptian politics and understandings of basic political and economic concepts; annual summer camps that concentrate on human rights conventions, alongside a plethora of topics such as transitional justice, rights to association and rights to education; as well as grassroots educational associations that aim to eradicate illiteracy and develop critical consciousness in working-class districts in Greater Cairo. However, these methods can be insufficient given the lack of strong grassroots ties, limited resources and crucially, the state’s multifarious restrictions (see my previous blog post). Accordingly, I argue that alternatives that can overcome these issues are needed.

Such alternatives can be found in what I label the ‘facilitating solutions’ approach which, albeit being categorised as direct PE, aims to encourage people to develop their own political understandings and awareness as opposed to being taught about it. Importantly, they do not require as many resources. Reading groups and cinema clubs comprise two key political educational methods under this approach, alongside ‘access to information as political education’ which enables the use of state budgets, legislations and the constitution to encourage people to question and take action against the status quo. Nonetheless, these methods are still liable to attract the state’s attention and repression which necessitates considering more indirect approaches to PE that can offer more intangible methods of education.

My paper outlines five examples of indirect PE: a ‘constitution’ used by an educational organisation to encourage participants to develop skills and behaviour and is conducive to teaching  about responsibility, accountability and political participation; teaching peace and conflict resolution via interactive simulations and activities; ‘building cities’ out of recycled cardboard boxes whereby participants are responsible for running this ‘city’ alongside its political and economic systems; a board game that educates about Egypt’s diverse cultures, customs, histories and geography; and finally, an independent publishing house that publishes books designed to teach young adults about human rights, democracy and tolerance.

These examples offer CSOs opportunities to function, educate and survive under the current repressive context. Nonetheless, given the growing repressive tendencies displayed by al-Sisi’s regime, we must consider the increasing potentiality of CSOs (in)advertently maintaining the status quo and neutralising political action through such indirect approaches to PE. However, and building on my previous paper, thinking in a Gramscian way indicates that authoritarianism can never be absolute and is challenged through means that are not always explicitly visible, or that adhere to conventional understandings of resistance (such as education). The examples I outline do contain numerous limitations and potential ambiguities, but they still offer the limited means by which CSOs can negotiate the terrain of hegemonic contestation under authoritarian contexts. In short, in terms of the current political conjuncture facing Egypt, it is difficult to know for certain where such educational initiatives will lead, and whether they will be capable of offering sustained efforts to challenge the status quo. Yet, it is vital that we consider how such opportunities can offer the means to experiment, imagine and organise in alternative ways as part of any counter-hegemonic struggle.

Nadim Mirshak
Nadim Mirshak is Lecturer in Sociology at The University of Manchester. His research focuses on political sociology, sociology of education and critical pedagogy, social movements, state-society relations under authoritarian contexts, and Gramscian readings of the Middle East. Some of his work has been published in Social Movement Studies, Critical Sociology, and Open Democracy.

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