Mariam’s zero: Egyptian alleged corruption case verges on absurdity

When Mariam Malak finished her all-important high school diploma exam, she was confident she would pass with distinction and go to a university of her choosing.

But the Christian girl from El Miniya, southern Egypt, was utterly and completely shocked. She got a zero in all subjects.

Malak’s belief in the justice of her case and her determination to fight corruption, endemic in Egypt’s education system, turned her case into a national cause celebre, known as Mariam’s zero.

"Mariam's tears", a page dedicated to her cause on Facebook. 

"Mariam's tears", a page dedicated to her cause on Facebook. 

Her story made it to the front page of national newspapers and to talk shows, arousing great outcry and an outpouring of solidarity on Twitter and a page, “Mariam’s tears”, is dedicated to her on Facebook.

Malak and the many Egyptians who identify with her clamoured for an investigation into what they claim is a scam that involves switching exam papers. This certainty comes from a deep-seated mistrust of an education system rife with corruption--similar incidents of exam fraud get reported every year.

Facebook and YouTube have become platforms for revelations and allegations about endemic corruption in the education ministry’s centralised marking and grading department and its regional branches, known as the “control”, where Malak’s exam papers were allegedly switched.

Malak’s case led to further allegations about another corruption scandal involving the “control”. An Egyptian journalist’s post on Facebook in solidarity with Malak, claimed that three education officials were demoted and penalised for exposing alleged exam fraud cases by their fellow “control” officials.

According to the post by journalist Ahmed Abu ElKhair, officials in the “control” allowed the son of a senior security official, who had already sat for the final high school exam, to have another go at it. He was allegedly allowed to copy the perfect answers provided by “control” officials. Last year, the student had the highest score in the nationwide exam which qualifies students to enter university, Abu ElKhair claimed.

In further allegations, Abu ElKhair maintained that “Control” officials offer a similar service to children of businessmen at a high price tag: 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,280) per subject.

One of the demoted officials went on TV to confirm Abu ElKhair's post, triggering calls for an investigation into the alleged exam scam involving the official’s son.

Such claims confirmed Malak’s belief that her case was one that involved the switching of her exam papers. This means instead of passing a failed student, exam papers are switched so a student who passed is failed and the failed student passes.

The most vulnerable students who are likely to be failed are usually the poor and people without wasta—an Arabic word which means getting something through nepotism or favouritism rather than merit. Malak is poor and she has no wasta.

After the minister of education, Moheb al-Rafie, initially dismissed outright any talk of exam fraud, he ordered an investigation under pressure from the popular campaign on social media and in the mainstream media; all the while hearing calls for his resignation.

Conclusions of a forensic investigation of Malak’s handwriting were not in her favour—a sample of her handwriting was alleged to be identical to the handwriting in the so-called ‘zero’ exam papers said to be hers, official investigators and the education ministry reportedly said. Of course many insist this is just another layer of the cover up.

Undaunted by this outcome, Malak pushed ahead with what has become a case of David vs Goliath. Her family insists on further investigations, threatening to take the case to an international court.

These mounting pressures yielded results—the Egyptian prime minister met Malak and promised further investigations. And a TV station tested her knowledge in various subjects in a live interview. Her answers won praise and provided further evidence to her sympathisers about the fairness of her case.

Egyptians from all sections of society rallied around the cause of Mariam Malak, in an unusual unity, in a society increasingly stratified along lines of class and religion, and political divisions over the current government and its nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Many Egyptian Christians, though largely touched by the outpouring of solidarity with Malak, may find that this sentiment glosses over the long-standing suffering of Christian students, especially in state schools.

They are often subject to victimisation and harassment, mostly in state schools, where sectarian ideas and religious intolerance have become the norm. Conservative teachers and school personnel with Islamist leanings, encouraged by like-minded students and families, often impose their own agenda on schools, sometimes in defiance of official policy. This is especially true in poverty-stricken southern Egypt where Islamists are particularly powerful and Muslims are more conservative.

The trend is widely seen as a reflection of the Islamists’ power and influence, which has grown unchecked since the 1970s and led to an entrenched social and religious conservatism in Egypt.

The tweet below sums up the predicament of being poor and Christian in Egypt.

“Mariam Malak is a poor Christian girl from southern Egypt—each of these attributes can incur the worst of injustices, so one can only imagine what would happen to someone who possesses all of them,” Secular tweeted. 

On social media platforms and in mainstream media the received opinion about the case is that it is all about corruption and injustice and not about anti-christian trends. This reflects the sensibilities of those with aspirations for an egalitarian society and those hankering for a past when Egypt was “cosmopolitan” and less sectarian.

Egyptian journalist Fatma Naout, known for her anti-Islamist writings, fondly recalled the past when she and other Muslims were educated at nuns’ schools and taught “values and morality” and “love of the homeland” by Christian teachers.

“We never imagined in the worst of our dreams that there will come a day when Muslims will bar Christians from their schools,” she wrote.

According to Naout, a head teacher in the southern province of Sohag said brazenly that no “Christian would be allowed into the school as long as I am in charge”.

Egypt ranked last in the quality of basic education in the Global Competitiveness Report for 2013-2014 of the World Economic Forum.

Malak’s case highlighted the deep-seated distrust not only in the education system but extending even to the authority which did the forensic analysis of her handwriting.

Distrust of the forensic authorities increased after it gave flawed evidence in the case of Egyptian activist Khalid Sayyid, who was tortured to death by police in June 2010. His death triggered popular outrage throughout Egypt and is believed to have played a major role in sparking the uprising that led to the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany tweeted sarcastically:

“The forensic authority that confirmed there was no exam paper switching in Mariam Malak’s case is the same authority that ruled that Khalid Sayyid died after swallowing marijuana to avoid detection by police.”

It is worthwhile observing certain things about the education system. The poor quality of education is blamed on poorly trained and underpaid teachers who to compensate for their meagre salaries--$100 -$170 a month--are forced to take on private students and neglect those who do not pay for extra lessons.

A state school in Cairo. 

A state school in Cairo. 

Egypt’s education system with its huge divide between private and state schools may further fuel corruption. Better jobs and increased social mobility are associated with education at private schools. But even these are separated by a big divide in quality. At the lowest end of the spectrum are affordable private schools, offering only a slightly better education than state schools. They are affordable even to small civil servants who are willing to tighten the belt for the sake of securing a better future for their children.

A classroom in an Egyptian private school. 

A classroom in an Egyptian private school. 

At the highest end of the spectrum are international schools where  children of the privileged classes are educated by British, American, French or German teachers- literally growing up speaking a different language to their fellow citizens.