BEIRUT: Caretaker Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh said his efforts to revive an education sector shoddily reconstituted after the Civil War (1975-90) have been hampered by entrenched political interests and the failures of his predecessor.
“It’s an immense job, which reminded me of the job I inherited after the war when I became health minister with nothing: no vaccinations, illegal pharmacies, medicine was sold at gas stations. It’s unbelievable what we inherited: The war depleted Lebanon,” he told The Daily Star in an interview at his office in Beirut’s An-Nahar building. He said he had been trying to break 20 years of “paralysis” in the education sector by introducing new programs that account for “the technical revolution on one side, and the necessity to keep some of the major historical and societal values of the Lebanese people on the other.”
To do that, he said he needed to amend school curriculums that have remained unchanged since 1997 and bring in modern educators. Currently, Lebanon’s teachers, “some very qualified and some underqualified,” weighed down the entire system. They “were brought into the education system at a time when the Lebanese state was incorporating, without many criteria, the militias into all domains of public life army, security, education, health and so on,” he said.
Many of these teachers regularly protest on the streets for employment, wage hikes and state benefits, including health and social coverage. Hamadeh said they may have had rights to those benefits “at the time but ... they don’t have [them] today,” because many were too old and lacked qualifications.
Before the Cabinet entered caretaker status in May, Hamadeh had called for a special session to address education-related issues, including a failure to implement an increase in salaries for teachers mandated by the 2017 salary scale law. The session was never held.
Many public and private schools have refused to increase teachers’ wages, stagnant since 1997, so Hamadeh proposed implementing a six-grade increase over three years to lower the pressure of the salary hike on schools and families.
The failure to resolve the issue has led to an exodus of about 30,000 students from private schools to cheaper public schools, with 800,000 in the former and 250,000 now in the latter, Hamadeh said.
Overall, he described his management of the education crisis as successful. He said he did not have a teachers’ strike that lasted more than one or two days, and there was no strike on holding or marking exams, as happened during the tenure of his predecessor, Free Patriotic Movement MP Elias Bou Saab.
Hamadeh said Bou Saab had stuffed the ministry with employees close to him and his party, and had introduced “thousands [of professors]” into the public Lebanese University, “many of whom did not have confirmed doctorates.”
He blamed Bou Saab’s staffing of the Education Ministry on a row between the Progressive Socialist Party and the FPM earlier this year that was sparked by Hamadeh’s reassignment of Hilda Khoury, an employee appointed by Bou Saab, to head the official exams department.
In response, two civil servants reportedly affiliated with the PSP were reassigned within FPM-controlled administrations.
Hamadeh said he did not regret his move. “It was misunderstood politically, because too many missions were given to Aounis by Elias Bou Saab,” Hamadeh said.
He said Bou Saab’s actions were in line with Lebanon’s post-war political landscape, where each party tries to grab a share of any state institutions it can, to the detriment of the state’s proper functioning.
‘NO HOPE’ FOR REFORM UNDER AOUN
Instead of moving away from the sectarianization of public life in the aftermath of the Civil War, Hamadeh said, “the Lebanese government and the mentality reigning at the highest level of the state will not allow any reform presently.”
“The presidency talks about reform, but the mind of the presidency, a populist demagogic presidency, will not be able to cope with reforms. There is no hope during this mandate,” he said, adding that Aoun and the FPM he founded were “burning the country and burning themselves with it.”
“I have been a minister 11 times since 1980; I’m the oldest established minister in the government now. It’s the worst government and the worst [presidential] mandate I have ever been through, even throughout the [Civil] War,” he said.
During Aoun’s term, Hamadeh said, a “slanted” and “sectarian” electoral law was endorsed, as well as a budget that has failed to accurately account for spending. This has been evidenced most recently by a half-billion dollars of emergency spending Parliament had to secure for the electricity and health sectors. “We are reaching unprecedented levels of downfall economically and financially, and we are handing ourselves over more and more to Hezbollah.”
SYRIAN CRISIS ‘A CURSE AND A BLESSING’
While he has a pessimistic view of state-led reform during Aoun’s term, Hamadeh sees some opportunities in the future of the education sector, due in part to the “shock” caused by the Syrian crisis.
“It [created] a shock in the public system and a challenge to the private system, and while the Lebanese were addressing this crisis, they discovered they had their own educational crisis,” he said.
The minister is working with the international community and local experts to “rebuild the [education] system with the chance given to us by the Syrian crisis ... [which is] a curse and a blessing.”
The fact that over a million Syrian students have passed through Lebanon’s education system over the past seven years has created a need to refurbish schools and train better teachers in accordance with “modern systems.”
He said an additional 13,000 teachers had been employed throughout the crisis to facilitate a double-shift system (where two cohorts take classes in the morning and the afternoon), to grapple with the massive influx of students.
Some 220,000 Syrian children are in Lebanese schools this year, he said, while a further 60,000 are informally educated, another 60,000 are in private schools and about 30,000 more are in remedial programs to help them reach a level where they can take part in normal schooling.
Funding for the Syrian students was more or less secured thanks to aid from European countries and the U.S., routed through the United Nations’ children fund, UNICEF.
But funding for Palestinian students through UNRWA was less certain, Hamadeh said, with only three or four months’ worth secured. Arab states had come forward to plug some of the gap that was caused by a U.S. decision to cut some $300 million from its promised total funding for the agency ahead of the school year.
“Already some Palestinian children are drifting to Lebanese public schools and increasing the burden on our shoulders. We’re working to have the Americans change their minds, which is difficult with [U.S. President Donald] Trump, or find alternative funding.”
More than a decade after he was the target of the first assassination attempt in a series of political killings that gripped Lebanon starting in 2004, and after he lived through a period of immense change that has since turned to stagnation, Hamadeh said he has still not lost hope.
“I think the crisis is maturing to a new degree [and] that it will not allow [for] things to go on this way,” he said. “Salvation will come through the crisis.” Even so, he said he was “very worried that Michel Aoun ... is [leading us toward] a new feud.”