On Monday Oct. 27 the mother of 11-year-old Islam Amr Badr packed her son’s lunch as usual. But as she rushed him off to school that morning nothing could have prepared her for the agonizing news she would hear a few hours later; that she will never see her son alive again.
News of the death of Islam at the hands of his 23-year-old mathematics teacher Haitham Nabil Abdel Hamid shocked the nation this week, triggering a string of condemnations that culminated in calls for the resignation of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Education. Interestingly, it took three whole days following the boy’s death for said minister Yousry El Gamal to express his “regret over the “incident, to promise compensation for the bereaved family and to decide to convene an emergency meeting to reiterate the absolute prohibition on the use of violence and corporal punishment in schools.
It’s easy to condemn, regret, pontificate, denounce, attack, revile and censure such acts of gratuitous violence, but in Egypt, does it make any difference?
What happened at Saad Othman Primary School in Alexandria when the teacher kicked and punched a child to death for not doing his homework, is nothing new to our venerable education arena, which is increasingly taking the shape of a Darwinian jungle where only the fittest survive.
It’s difficult not to see that this is merely a reflection of the growing violence in Egyptian society as a whole, where ordinary citizens, un-cushioned by money and connections, are tortured in police stations or thrown in prison for no reason; where women and girls are sexually harassed on the streets and in the workplace with impunity and where total chaos prevails everywhere, from street traffic to the courthouse.
In another case that shook the country last year, one primary schoolchild lost an eye when a teacher threw a sharpened pencil at him. This is where the vicious circles of repression, subjugation and violence is born and so it comes as no surprise that by the time these children reach high school, they start hitting back against teachers they no longer respect.
Ironically the “incident took place two years after the launch of the “Cairo Declaration and the Regional Consultation for the Middle East and North Africa’s UN Study on Violence Against Children in 2005, under the auspices of Egypt’s First Lady Suzanne Mubarak.
In the preamble to the Cairo Declaration the signatories recognized that “children are citizens and fundamental partners in the democratic process, participants bear in mind that all policies, programs and mechanisms pertaining to combating violence against children should be in conformity with the principles spelled out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, namely; best interests of the child, “non-discrimination, the right to life, survival, development and respect for views of the child and the right of the child to express these views in the family, the school, and all institutions . [and] commit themselves “to ensure protection of children from corporal punishment and explicitly prohibit corporal punishment in all settings including in the family; schools and other institutions.
It would be unjust to ignore the efforts of Egypt’s National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) which has set up a children’s hotline (16000) to receive complaints and whose chair Mushira Khattab has been instrumental in amending the controversial Child Law last March, but much more needs to be done to ensure the seamless implementation of these and other related laws.
Legal experts say that if Islam’s killer is convicted of battery leading to death, he will get a maximum sentence of seven years in prison but with a good lawyer, he could get away with involuntary manslaughter winding him up in prison for only three years.
In Egypt, corporal punishment in schools has been banned since the early 90s, but where are the mechanisms to monitor these schools and ensure the eradication of all forms of violence against children who have no means of protecting themselves?
In a TV interview, Manal Shahin, director of the NCCM hotline, said that in the past two years, 85 teachers have been penalized for using corporal punishment in the classroom based on student and parents’ complaints.
She recalled a recent case where one primary school child’s arm was broken when he was roughed up by his teacher, but added that the real crisis lay in the minimal punishment meted out to the perpetrator who only got three days docked off his salary and was transferred to another school.
On the day following the death of Islam, another investigation was initiated into the “broomstick beating of 15 primary school children in the Delta city of Mahalla which led to more broken arms, bruises and undoubtedly the birth of more amputated spirits. The final forensic report on the cause of death in Islam’s case will be ready in 21 days. Whitewash attempts have already begun with random claims by the school and by the education ministry’s administrative authorities in Alexandria disputing Islam’s father, Amr Badr’s, contention that his son was already dead by the time he was taken to hospital.
The legal battle here isn’t between one murdered child’s father and a 23-year-old teacher, but between an entire underprivileged sector of society and a government that has abandoned it; one that has relinquished all its duties; one that is guilty on all counts, whether negligence, arbitrary hiring of unqualified teachers or failure to monitor the implementation of laws banning corporal punishment in schools.
Two days after his father lowered him into the grave Islam’s mother was still in shock, her family restraining her from hysterically leaving the house to pick up her dead 11-year-old from school.
Nothing will bring Islam back to life, but if his death does not lead to the legal, social and administrative upheaval it warrants, then he will forever be immortalized as the symbol of Egypt’s abortive efforts to build a future that is at least less tragic than its present.
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.