The kingdom of Libya became independent of Italy under King Idris in 1951. Just over a decade later, Algeria finally followed after its long war of independence with France in 1962. During this period, the five countries of the southern Mediterranean coast each in different ways took control of their own futures. Amongst a sobering battery of challenges, one of the more pressing for all of them was education. A large proportion of colonial civil servants, businessmen, skilled workers and teachers left at Independence, especially from the francophone countries where settler colonialism was particularly dense. In Egypt the 1952 Revolution, followed by the Suez War and the expulsion of the mutamassirun, resident foreigners (Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Italians), had a similar effect, though Egyptian capacity was already far more developed than that of the Maghreb. In late Protectorate Morocco, for instance, there were three times as many French fonctionnaires as there were British civil servants in India, with its population forty times the size of Morocco’s – quite apart from large European commercial and artisan classes.  Each country faced an urgent need for skilled manpower to fill the vacuum. Each country’s educated local elite was both much too small, and mostly unsuited, to fill that need itself, and at the same time largely unequipped to train the next generation. Each government faced a pent-up demand for the social escalator that education represented, and from which the vast majority of the Muslim population had been excluded under French rule. Constructing a new education system was for each an urgent and absolutely crucial area of national development.

Libya and the francophone countries of the Maghreb started from a very low base. Egypt was better placed, with a proud legacy of elite education and the highest level of school enrolment in the region, at around 50 per cent. In Morocco in 1956 only 13 per cent of Muslim children of school age attended school, and the country boasted a total of 640 native graduates. Tunisia, where 33 per cent of Muslim children were in school, counted 1,300. In Algeria the enrolment figure was 21 per cent (this reflected a recent growth from around 8 per cent during the Second World War). In the brand new United Kingdom of Libya more than 90 per cent of the population was illiterate and there were just over 800 students in secondary school. Girls were of course vastly underrepresented in, though not entirely absent from, schools across the region as a whole.

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