I was reading this week’s issue of The Economist which has a special country report on Egypt. The study provides some cause for optimism for Egypt’s future- a lower birth rate and increases in foreign investment, and the hope that Mubarak’s failing health might usher in some reform and improved civil rights when his successor takes centre stage.
But then I came across an astonishing fact...
“A government survey this year found that, apart from school textbooks, 88% of Egyptian households read no books, and three-quarters of families do not read any newspapers or magazines either. Of those who do read, 79% concentrate on religious subjects.”
-The Economist, July 17-23 2010
This fact might go some way in explaining the lack of any economic and social progress in the Arab, and the perpetual state of economic festering and stagnation in the Arab states. Future economies will be built on knowledge and innovation, with education and learning at the heart of developments.
Despite being famed for introducing chemistry, algebra, the astrolabe, the zero and a host of ancient knowledge that would have disappeared had not Arab intellectuals translated it more than a 1000 years ago, the modern Arab world has witnessed a general lack of intellectual achievement bar some notable exceptions especially among those living in the West where Arab doctors, scientists, bankers and artists thrive.
This raises another issue- the political environments in the Arab states are hardly conducive to open discussion, debate and publishing. The majority of newspapers are state-controlled and bland, with little analysis or comment. Books are likewise mundane and basic. In a bookshop in one Arab country, I once saw a number of books on anthropology, different periods of history and Islamic civilization all by the same author.
In any case, information is now more easily and freely available with blogs and other internet tools reaching the youth in particular. There is more good news. The literacy rate has been rising in the Arab world and technological and media innovation is now speeding ahead in Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and the Gulf.
In Deutsche Welle’s international prize for the best 100 blogs, a Jordanian, Osama Romoh won first place for his daring and innovative blog. It is not before time that such stories become more frequent.