IN EGYPT, AS elsewhere, a higher education represents a ticket to a better life, and the possibility of breaking through class barriers. For hard-working parents who were unable to finish high school, much less go to college, putting their children through school is the top priority. Tuition fees for private colleges are prohibitive, so each summer, as high school students take the entry exams required by Egypt's 22 state-funded universities, the nation is enveloped in a wave of collective anxiety. 2his year at least two suicides were attributed to exam-related stress.
During exam time, education-related cartoons appear in newspapers and scores of jokes make the rounds to help diffuse the tension felt by parents and children alike. One tells of a boy who equipped himself for his test with crib notes written on his shirt. To respond to the question 'who is the current president?' he was obliged to consult his collar; he copied 'Van Heusen' from the label. Since no one under the age of 27 has ever known a president other than Hosni Mubarak, this typically Egyptian joke is not as funny as it is biting, underlining the state's failure to provide citizens with proper schooling.
In 2008, around 800,000 students took their thanawiyya aroma exams in the hope of scoring high enough to enter the faculty of their choice, knowing that even a decimal point's difference could turn years of hope into failure. The cost of private tutors, engaged for months in advance to help students prepare, is a major item on household budgets, costing as much as $2,500 per student and collectively amounting to an estimated $2.6bn per year.
Considering the emotional and material investments, parents will do anything to see their children score high, even if it means helping them cheat. Mothers have been known to stand outside classroom windows shouting answers to their children, and with the advent of mobile phones, SMS texting has probably improved many a student's exam performance.
This summer, the cheating issue took on a new dimension, when it was directly linked to a corrupt bureaucracy. A scandal erupted in June over revelations that exam samples were sold in advance for $150 to a select clientele in the Middle Egypt city of Minya. According to opposition newspapers, a member of parliament was one of those behind the leak, and his customers were the children of high-ranking police officials. Subsequent arrests, including that of a local headmaster, a police officer...