Psychology in Egypt: Challenges and hopes
By Wael M.Y. Mohamed, MD, PhD
In this article, Dr. Mohamed provides an overview of the history and development of psychology in Egypt and discusses some of the current challenges and potentials regarding the state of psychology as a discipline. Because Egypt was the gate through which modern psychology spread into the region, the general strengths and weaknesses of Egyptian psychology are often seen throughout other countries in the Middle East.
The modern discipline of psychology began in the 19th century. In the premodern Islamic context, the term "psychology" referred to the study of human mind and behavior, while the term "mind" referred to human intellect and consciousness. Thus, medieval Islamic psychology did not deal with the mind only (Ashy, 1999). Early Arab and Muslim scholars wrote extensively about human psychology. They used the term Nafs (self or soul) to indicate individual personality and the term fitrah (nature) as an indication for human nature. Nafs is a broad term that includes the qalb (heart), the ruh (spirit), the aql (intellect) and irada (will). Early Muslim scholars had a certain philosophy in their writing that encompassed all areas of human enquiry, i.e. the knowledge of all things, both divine and human (Ashy, 1999). Therefore, Islamic psychology, or Ilm-al Nafsiat (psychological sciences), referred to the study of Nafs and was related to psychology, psychiatry, and neurosciences (Deuraseh and Abu Talib, 2005). Al-ilaj al-nafsy (psychological therapy) in Islamic medicine was simply defined as the study of mental illness and is equal to psychotherapy, as it deals with curing/ treatment of ideas, soul and vegetative mind. The psychiatric physician was referred to as altabib al-ruhani or tabib al-qalb (spiritual physician) (Deuraseh and Abu Talib, 2005). Moreover, the Islamic and Arabic psychological era included the establishment of the first mental hospitals, the development of the first clinical approach to mental illness and a unique experimental approach to the study of the mind (Khaleefa, 1999; Paladin, 1998).
Development of psychology in Egypt
As stated by German experimentalist Hermann Ebbinghaus, there is no doubt that psychology has a long past but only a short history. Looking back, the first psychological experiment was performed by an Egyptian King during the seventh century B.C. (Hunt, 1993, p.1). The experiment hypothesized that, if Egyptian children were isolated during infancy without any means of language communication, they would spontaneously speak the original language of civilization: Egyptian. This experiment underscored the idea that thoughts and language come from the mind.
Western psychology was introduced in Egypt in the early decades of the twentieth century. From Egypt, psychology was introduced into and practiced by all Arab countries. Many Arab scholars contributed to the history of the discipline. Some famous names include Al-Farabi, Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), Ibn-Roshd, Ibn-al-Heitham and Ibn-Khaldoun (for more details, see Mohamed, 2008). Modern psychology flourished in Egypt after the establishment of the first formal university in 1908 (The Egyptian University) (Rizk, 1998). Later on, a mission was organized of sending national graduate students abroad to obtain scientific degrees and thus qualify as future faculty members (Reid, 1990, p. 63). This program is still operating efficiently. I received a four-year graduate scholarship through it to get my PhD from Pennsylvania State University in the U.S.
The first psychological lecture addressed the psychology of women in 1911 (Cairo University, 1983, p. 59). During this time period, psychology was taught by French teachers, but, beginning in 1940 and thereafter, this responsibility was handed over to Egyptian psychologists. The best known Egyptian teacher was "Y. Mourad," who had obtained his degree from France ("docteur des letters" in experimental psychology) under the supervision of H. Piéron and H. Délacroix (Soueif MI and Ahmed RA, 2001). In 1945, the Egyptian Journal of Psychology was established in parallel with the founding of the Association of Integrative Psychology. The Egyptian Journal of Psychology had a short lifespan, from 1945 until 1953, when it was terminated due to financial issues. Concomitantly, there was a tremendous increase in the number of qualified psychologists (with PhD) as soon as two additional universities were established; Alexandria University and Ain-Shams University. Later on, in 1956, a law was passed, defining the legal status of psychotherapists, and in 1959-1960 a postgraduate diploma in applied psychology was started at Cairo University (Soueif MI and Ahmed RA, 2001).
Egypt was the gateway of modern psychology to other Arab countries. As a consequence, most of the Arab world shares the same strengths and weaknesses as the psychological discipline does in Egypt. This to a great extent stems from sharing similar sociocultural factors, e.g., language, history, religion, political environment, etc. In this section I highlight the main characteristics of psychology in Egypt, pointing to some of the challenges:
Technical and professional challenges
Egyptian Universities face economic hardships, like other sectors of Egyptian society. This affects academic output, psychology included, e.g., heavy bureaucracy, budget and administrative issues, low ratio of student/instructors.
The psychology departments in Egypt are part of Faculties of Arts rather than standing as a separate discipline. Therefore, psychology finds itself between literary studies and the scientific disciplines. This in turn affects the impression of the field and poses serious limitations to its development. Also, in some Universities, psychology is usually practiced as part of neurology. Over the years there has been a conflict between two groups of psychologists: the first being composed of medical faculty members; and the second including the faculty members of the graduate schools. Such conflict yields a characteristic version of psychology with a split identity and a disfigured public image.
Most research publications in psychology are published either in Journals of Social Studies or Egyptian Journals of psychology. Much of this literature, in my opinion, is repetitive, fragmented and non-cumulative, and does not provide normative data about local populations to be used for comparisons. Often, Egyptian researchers use exported normative data from Western countries to compare their samples. Thus, there may be a lack of reliability or validity of conclusions for Egyptian samples.
Many of the Western tools of investigation, especially paper and pencil tests, have been translated to Arabic. However, computer-based tests are still uncommon, as we (Egyptian psychologists) do not have the resources to develop an Arabic interface for such tests. Moreover, normative data for those tests are based on the Western samples, e.g. White, African- American, etc., which do not necessarily fit the Egyptian or Arab populations, owing to multiple socio-cultural factors.
Experimental psychology (animal psychology) does not receive much attention in the psychological institutes. Thus, there is a huge gap between preclinical and clinical psychology.
The translation of Western textbooks poses an important obstacle for the development of psychology in Egypt. Numerous Western textbooks have been translated into Arabic since the 1950s. Moreover, there are only two psychological associations in Egypt with limited memberships, activities and influence in the field (Ahmed, 1992).
Many subspecialties in psychology do not exist in Egypt. One such example is political psychology, which is not recognized in Egypt because its theoretical framework is not well formulated (Jakovljevic, 2011). Development of these subspecialties are important because, in the case of political psychology, it provides an understanding of human nature, emotion, and behavior in politics (Sapiro, 2001). Such an understanding is especially important in Egypt, where the political atmosphere is such that Egyptians were forbidden to discuss the life of their most recent president. After the revolution, psychologists in Egypt hope to examine political behaviors (i.e., hubris syndrome) and present them to public.
The job market for psychology graduates in Egypt is reasonably good, with positions in the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education or Ministry of Industry. However, these positions are often not well defined.
There are common myths and misconceptions about the public image of psychology, including, but not limited to the following:
A belief that mental illness is a sign of weakness in the faith;
A belief that people in need of psychiatric care should be locked away in special institutions, as mentally-ill people are often considered to be dangerous to society;
A belief that people with mental disorders must work lowlevel jobs, because they are not competent for important or responsible jobs; and,
A belief that mental disease is mainly due to Jinn (demon) whispers or Jinn possession, so they need a spiritual kind of treatment and not medical treatment, e.g., in the case of epilepsy.
Despite several challenges, at present, Egyptian psychologists are estimated to make up about 70 percent of the total Arab psychologist population. Moreover, psychological research in Egypt constitutes about 70 percent of the total Arabic output (Ahmed and Gielen, 1998). We (as Egyptian psychologists) hope to get involved in collaborations with colleagues overseas and in projects funded, in order to establish a normative database for various psychological tests tuned to our own people. Also, we hope to have professional meetings of psychological societies like the National Academy of Neuropsychology in our area, to help us in developing psychology in our part of the world.
Summary and conclusion
There is no doubt that psychological conceptions were presented to Egyptian learners long ago. The psychological literatures and researches conducted in Arabic since the early 1940s have grown extensively with a parallel growth in the number of psychology students attending universities and institutions all over the Arab world, especially Egypt. Egyptian psychologists published in selected central areas in psychology. For instance, social and personality psychology accounts for 30 percent of the published research, 2.4 percent of psycho-physiological investigations, and almost no work in the field of animal psychology (Soueif and Ahmed, 2001). There are many challenges that face the development of modern psychology in Egypt, including funding to support research activities of psychologists, lack of an effective flow of communication among Egyptian psychologists, and blurred problematic academic identity. Certainly, development of this empirical branch of science within Egypt will not be easy to accomplish, but it has to be done.
About the author
Dr. Mohamed received his MD from Menoufiya University in Egypt and worked as a lecturer of psychopharmacology before receiving a scholarship to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience at Pennsylvania State University. He was awarded his PhD in December 2011. He can be reached by email.
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