Learning by Doing

© Published in New World Magazine

Cairo  – Twenty-three-year-old Wael Abdel Shafy describes himself as a typical young Egyptian. In one way, he is. In and out of temporary employment since leaving the local technical secondary school six years ago, he is still searching for his first steady job. Any dreams he may have had about using his school grades as a springboard to a career in electrical engineering soon disappeared. Even part-time work in his chosen profession was virtually impossible to come by. Wael has done just about everything from laying cable and plastering on Cairo’s construction sites to serving tourists in the restaurant and cafeteria of the city’s Meridien Hotel. However, he has never earned much more than the equivalent of $80 a month.

A pale light descends from the skylights into a roomy workshop located between btm, an Egyptian textile company, and a Hoechst manufacturing plant in Cairo’s industrial quarter. Dusty inscriptions, citing the name of Allah or verses from the Koran in ornate Islamic script, hang on the wall. Standing at a workbench, Wael judiciously inspects a metal component he is working with a file. „Here I have the chance to train for a dream career that could one day provide a secure job and a good income,“ says the slim young man excitedly. „I could even earn 700 pounds ($200) a month right away, ‚inshallah‘ – God willing.“

By „here,“ Wael is referring to the Training Centre for Automation Engineering (TCAE), a joint initiative sponsored by the Egyptian Department of Industry and the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). As far as the trainees are concerned, this model project, with its workshops, its chemistry and computer labs, symbolizes the hope, but also the problems inherent in Egypt’s desolate economy.

Wael has invited us to his home in Abbassia, once a well-to-do neighborhood. Today, it is the home of a social class living on the edge. For most people here, a salary cut of $60 a month could mean the plunge into social oblivion. Here, buses belching clouds of fumes roll past street cafes populated by men playing backgammon and smoking water pipes, their conversation drowned by the tide of traffic and Cairo’s trademark fanfare of honking car horns.

Wael’s mother is veiled. Like many strictly religious women, she wears gloves. Normally, a veiled woman would not shake hands with a man. But our hostess is prepared to make an exception for foreigners unfamiliar with the customs. Khaled, Wael’s 13-year-old brother, still goes to school.

The family has been saving for a telephone for the past five years. Thanks to the combined incomes of Wael and his other brother Ashraf, a bookkeeper by trade, plus a small sum of cash left behind by their father, who died in 1991, the family can just about make ends meet. The apartment walls are bare apart from yellow stains.

The pharaohs may have been rich, but modern-day Egypt is poor. Most of the country’s problems stem from its explosive population growth: since 1960, the number of inhabitants has quadrupled from 16 million to almost 64 million; the current rate of growth is around 1.2 million every year. Most of the income generated in Egypt is produced by the services sector (66 percent of the gross domestic product). Industry and mining come well behind with 18 percent, followed by agriculture with just 16 percent. Unemployment is currently running at almost 20 percent. To obtain financial aid from the International Monetary Fund, the government needs to accelerate the privatization of the nationalized economy. Unfortunately, a common side-effect of this particular brand of medicine – at least in the initial stages – is even more unemployment, even more poverty. But all is not lost; thanks to a reform program, the Egyptian economy is now displaying tentative signs of revival – even if the „Nile Tiger“ so regularly praised in local newspapers is still only at the embryonic stage.

Many in egypt, their gaze fixed on the upper classes, point to Cairo’s small and flourishing stock market as a sign of economic upturn. The arrival of renowned auto manufacturers like Mercedes, bmw, Jaguar and Rolls Royce, which have recently discovered the Egyptian market, is a clear indication that somebody here has money. However, it is people like Ahmed Ezz, a modern, enlightened industrialist active in steel and ceramics, who are not only making Egyptian industry fit for international competition, but also helping to bring at least a glimpse of prosperity to the masses. Ezz sponsors 91 of the 216 trainees at the TCAE. His goal is to provide workers with the skills they will need to operate modern equipment in his industrial park in nearby Sadat City.

Winfried Häusinger, GTZ team leader at the TCAE, says the problems experienced by the industrialist are symptomatic of the difficulties facing modern industry in Egypt: „There’s plenty of high-tech equipment around, but when something breaks down, an engineer has to be flown in to fix it. There’s simply no one locally with the requisite skills.“ This is where the TCAE comes in. As part of a program lasting up to two years, young Egyptians are initiated into the mysteries of control engineering and computer automation systems. At the end of the day, the trainees will have learnt to handle this complex technology – and how to solve problems. Since last fall, 16 youngsters sponsored by Siemens have been profiting from the scheme.

It all sounds fairly innocuous. But it isn’t! At least not in Egypt. The whole approach swims against the tide of the country’s traditions and educational ideals. Here, learning by rote – a technique long enshrined in the practice of reciting the Koran by heart – has established itself at schools and universities as the epitome of educational science.

In his days at the technical secondary school, Wael learned a lot about circuits – without ever actually assembling one. „The main thing in exams was always to repeat exactly what the teacher had said,“ he recalls. And the more literally, the better. „What we’re after, however,“ says Häusinger, formerly a trainer at both Fichtel & Sachs and Siemens, „is to encourage knowledge-transfer.“ Häusinger himself has experienced the old system at first hand. On a spontaneous visit to a TCAE class, he witnessed how an Egyptian teacher first presented the students with a problem – and then immediately wrote the answer on the board. Häusinger’s suggestion that the students work out the solution for themselves did not go down well. „It’s the engineer who works out the answer and not the trainee,“ came the teacher’s rebuke. Worse still, trainees capable of providing the solution refused to do so. But Häusinger persevered and eventually got his way.

The title of engineer – „Mohandis“ in Arabic – is hot property in Egypt. Many who can barely handle a screwdriver regard themselves as one. Next up the ladder is „Besh Mohandis,“ which literally means „Master Engineer.“ Häusinger is skeptical: „When it comes to solving practical problems, a lot of so-called engineers, including many graduate students and university professors, are pretty helpless. They don’t know half as much as the trainees learn here.“ In a country where technical equipment for teaching purposes is in short supply, theory is king. Against this background, you can’t help wondering how a system that places so much importance on hierarchies will be able to absorb trainees who know more than their supervisors.

Everyday life at Ahmed Ezz‘ factories provides at least one potential answer: „Engineers there are trained to European standards and are definitely more advanced than our trainees,“ says Häusinger. Of course, wage levels will also have to rise to prevent an exodus of successful TCAE graduates to highly paid jobs in the Gulf states. At the end of the day, Ezz sees himself as a pioneer. Assuming his operation turns out to be a commercial success, he believes others will follow his example. His ultimate goal is simple enough: to break the mold and help modernize attitudes in Egyptian industry.

At present, the TCAE is very much on its own. „There’s nothing like it out there,“ says Nermin, a 24-year-old electrical engineer and teacher of shoe manufacturing automation. The way she talks about „out there,“ you would think the training center were a space ship that had just crash-landed on a forbidding planet. The spirited young Egyptian woman sees little opportunity in the rest of Egypt where women only draw half-pay and are frequently mobbed by male colleagues. By contrast, apart from initially having to cope with a few macho students reluctant to accept a woman teacher, Nermin has experienced no such problems at TCAE. Today, no one questions her authority.

That alone provides sufficient reason to be satisfied with the $85 a month paid by the Egyptian Department of Industry, even though she could earn much more working in the private sector. That she also has to make a two-hour metro journey to and from work every day is something she only mentions to visitors in the privacy of her own home. Despite the drawbacks, Nermin is satisfied with her situation: „TCAE is a big chance for the Egyptians to take advantage of German know-how and profit from a fresh perspective,“ she says. For Nermin now, the only problem is to put off her husband’s desire for children long enough for her to help make the Nile Tiger roar.

MICHEL RAUCH writes travel books on the Middle East and also works for Allegra, Stern, and Spiegel TV. AXEL KRAUSE works as a freelance photographer for the „laif“ agency. Both live in Cairo.

© Copyright Michel Rauch