On Tuesday 17 February I stood with the Egyptian Deputy Minister of Education at the Sport and Youth Development Centre in downtown Cairo, observing two minutes of silence in memory of the twenty one Egyptians murdered in Libya the previous week. I began to think about how this great country could deliver a secure and prosperous future for its people.
One thing is clear, Egypt is a country which is growing fast and which is key to the stability of the Middle East and of North Africa. It is a young country (60 per cent of Egyptians are under the age of 30), home to more than 90 million people. Around 63 per cent of unemployed people are aged between 15 and 29, with 67 per cent of this group holding diplomas and higher education certificates.
Later that day, I had the pleasure and honour of meeting the Grand Imam of Al Azhar. Over a thousand years old, Al Azhar and its University is the world's leading and oldest institution of Sunni Islam scholarship. The Grand Imam is its leader. The scale dwarfs any British theological college or university with more than half a million students and a network of schools throughout the country that teach more than ten per cent of Egypt's children.
I was there to sign an agreement between the British Council and Al Azhar to continue a partnership we have had since 2007. The agreement supports the teaching and learning of English for the University's star theology students, allowing them to take the voice of moderate Islam to non-Arabic speaking audiences internationally. The vision is that they will be able to share and explain the true meaning of Islam to the region and to the rest of the world; to those of us of other faiths and to those of us of non-Arabic Muslim heritage. In this way, Al Azhar's engagement will spread the real values of Islam and counter the violent, seductive rhetoric of extremism. As the Grand Imam remarked, "All the support for Al-Azhar will be in the interests of a peaceful world and especially a peaceful Europe."
The Grand Imam's vision is also that fluency in English will allow scholars from Al Azhar to study and learn about Christianity and Judaism in international universities and to bring that learning back to the theological faculties of Al Azhar.
By improving the English language skills of Al Azhar's teachers in Egypt's education system, they will be better placed to train their pupils to succeed in business and academia. Eight hundred thousand new jobs need to be created every year just to meet the demand of the young Egyptians entering the market, which include over four hundred thousand graduates leaving higher education annually. That is eight hundred thousand new jobs for the economy just to stand still.
Education in Egypt is valued but under strain from these growing numbers. Improving access without diluting quality is the challenge for the country's Ministry of Education and the stakes are high. It is evident from my visit that this great, proud and important nation is moving forward despite the huge challenges it faces; that a successful Egypt will build a strong, dynamic region and will play a crucial role in seeing off instability and the destructive, murderous narrative of extremism. The understanding of English is part of that.
The English language is now an essential 21st century skill, as relevant to inter and intra-faith dialogue as to commerce. This enthusiasm to learn comes not because English is a replacement language, but because it has become an essential additional language. And with it, alongside those opportunities for education, careers and outside investment, comes the communication skills necessary for connecting cultures and ultimately enriching them.
Governments and institutions across the world recognise the importance of encouraging the study of English as part of this narrative. As the United Kingdom's international cultural relations organisation, we are privileged to play our part to support these academic and economic ambitions, ambitions that strengthen cultural links between societies across the globe. These links are essential if there is to be long term security and prosperity for the Middle East and North Africa, for Europe, and for the world.