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EGYPT: The Turks are coming!

May 19, 2009 |  8:33 am

Turkish school 2 f

As Turkey seeks to establish itself as a regional player, treading on the turf of traditional Middle East powers such as Egypt, a Turkish school has been inaugurated in Cairo. It appears to be a signal that Turkish ambitions stretch beyond the political to the cultural.

In a festive atmosphere, Turkish music echoed across a Cairo suburb this week announcing the opening of Salahaldin International School, the first Turkish school in Egypt.

“People hear a lot about Turkey, but they are not very much familiar with Turkish culture and lifestyle. This school will offer a clearer picture of the Turkish ways of life and mentality,” Shawkat Shimshek, the school’s academic director, told The Times on the sidelines of the event.

The school, which teaches the American curriculum from kindergarten to high school, is affiliated with the international movement of Fethullah Gulen, a liberal Islamic thinker with millions of followers in Turkey. With schools spread around the globe, the movement claims to instill values of coexistence and tolerance. Teachers include Turks and Egyptians, as well as native English speakers from Britain, the U.S. and Canada. English is the first language while Turkish can be chosen as a second language.

“There are [many] American schools in Egypt, but we give quality education and at the same time we care about moral, ethical values and discipline,” Shimshek said. “We will have Koranic classes; this is appealing to parents because lots of American schools here don’t provide their religious education with international education.”

Shimshek, however, opposed any attempt to label his school as Islamic. “We are not an Islamic school; people may presume that from the name. We care about ethics and moral values, and we don’t label ourselves as Islamic.”

Many prominent Egyptians attended the opening, including Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa and Islamic intellectual Mohammed Omara. In recent years, Turkey has been hailed by many Egyptian intellectuals as a success story for its democratization, economic progress, moderation of the Islamic movement and diligent diplomacy.

Lately, Turkey has come to the forefront of the international scene as a major Middle Eastern country that could serve as a broker between the Muslim world and the West. The Egyptian regime does not seem at ease with the growing fascination with the Turkish model. In response, Egypt's state-owned media have been recently highlighting Turkish-Israeli relations and dismissing Turkish influence. 

"It is beyond doubt that certain Turkish nongovernmental parties are engaged in educational, cultural as well as commercial projects in the Arab world that prepare the ground for Turkey to play a regional role,"  said Ibrahim Ghanem, a Cairo-based expert on Turkish affairs.

-- Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo

Photo: Turkish Ambassador Safak Gokturk speaks at the school opening in Cairo. Credit: Cumali Onal 

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