A group of Jordanian high schoolers couldn’t have anticipated that their plan to cheat on a biology exam would snowball into a diplomatic crisis dragging in ministers, ambassadors and intelligence agents from across the Middle East. Yet that’s exactly what happened this spring in an incident that has renewed demands for education reforms.
A scandal involving Jordan, Sudan and Egypt erupted in March after 23 students traveled from Aye, a village in southern Jordan, to Khartoum, Sudan, to take their final high school exams. In Jordan, the exams are known as the Tawjihi. Students who pass can go on to university studies, while the stigma of failing is so severe it drives some to suicide. This year, hundreds of Jordanian students took the Sudanese equivalent instead, hoping to get higher scores on a less challenging test.
A fixer from Aye facilitated the enrollment of students from the village in Sudanese exam centers. This type of service is not uncommon, but unlike others who provide it, he also promised to make sure they passed. Jordanian officials allege that the night before the biology exam, he gave the students a copy of the questions.
The scheme spiraled out of control when one student angered the fixer by sharing the exam outside the group, the officials said. Jordanian officials and individuals close to the families alleged that the fixer and the other students from Aye kidnapped and tortured him for sharing the questions and held him long enough to let the fixer flee the country.
“He had burn marks on his body. The torture was clear,” said Abu Anas, a parent from Karak. Abu Anas was in Khartoum at the time with his own son, who was also taking the exams but was not involved in the cheating incident. When he heard what happened, Abu Anas visited the injured student at a police station. He said the student had been tortured for 12 hours, and that the torture had been filmed. “There is a video. They sexually assaulted him. I saw torture in the videos. I saw more than this,” Abu Anas told Al-Monitor.
Sudanese intelligence agents started making arrests, at first targeting test centers and then schools, then people in the streets, witnesses told Al-Monitor.
When agents started raiding apartments, Abu Anas sheltered dozens of students in the apartment he was renting in Khartoum. “Any pickup that parked near the building, they got terrified. One student ran away to the roof. Because the [prison] cells [In Sudan] are not like [in Jordan]. It’s 50 degrees [Celsius, or 122 degrees Fahrenheit] in the shade. … They started arresting every Jordanian there. It was a horror.”
During their investigations, Sudanese authorities also discovered that a group of Egyptian students were using Bluetooth technology to exchange exam answers. Dozens of Egyptians were arrested, dragging Cairo into the crisis. Egypt’s Immigration Minister Nabila Makram visited Khartoum to address the issue.
After the arrests, Jordan’s Education Minister Mohammad Thneibat announced that students would be required to pass a proficiency exam before their certificates from abroad would be accredited. The move affects thousands of students, and outraged parents have been holding sit-ins at the Education Ministry in Amman.
Ashraf Adaileh, a representative of Jordanian students abroad, criticized the ministry’s retroactive decision. “When we sent our students, we didn’t just send them. We checked with the Education Ministry,” he told Al-Monitor. “Why do we send our students abroad? Because the procedures are complicated, and it’s tough on them. The percentage of people who passed [the exams] in Karak was 2%.”
In 2015, in 349 schools, not one student passed the exam, and nearly 60% of students failed nationwide.
Wajih Farah, the former head of research at Jordan’s Education Ministry, agrees the problem is Jordan’s hypercompetitive exam system. Students travel abroad, where exams are perceived to be easier, because they can’t pass Jordan’s exams, Farah explained.
Farah said the Tawjihi’s primary problem is its focus on memorization: “It is indoctrination, it is not critical thinking, and it seems to me that it is a policy, that they don’t allow the Jordanian student to be creative. Critical, analytical thinking does not exist here.” But he said there’s another reason students leave: It is hard to cheat in Jordan.
A 2012 investigation uncovered a widespread black market trade in exam questions across Jordan, while in some schools, answers were read from loudspeakers outside the exam hall. Teachers who intervened were assaulted by parents and students.
Since the report, the government has cracked down hard on cheating, leading to lower passing rates throughout the kingdom. More and more students are trying their luck abroad.
“They are running away from the exams here,” Farah said.
Jordanian diplomats have noticed the problem, Jordanian parliamentarian Mustafa Rawashdeh told Al-Monitor in Amman. Rawashdeh, who represents Karak, said that even before the arrests, diplomats had been relaying concerns back to Amman.
He said attachés in Jordan's embassies in Sudan and Turkey were warning that a high number of Jordanians were taking their final high school exams abroad, and the education they were receiving was “not serious.”
Rawashdeh, who traveled to Khartoum to try to resolve the crisis, strongly criticized Sudan’s handling of the case. “In the whole world, students caught cheating are dismissed from the school and that’s it. But to put them in intelligence prisons for 25 days, this is really strange. … I do not know if it is a message to the Jordanian government.”
Sudan has also criticized Jordan’s reaction to the situation. Sudanese Foreign Minister Kamal al-Din Ismail summoned Jordan’s ambassador to protest the Jordanian media's coverage of the crisis, and a top official in Sudan expressed objections over an Education Ministry decision to reject Sudanese certifications.
Meanwhile, in Khartoum, the heads of two Jordanian firms that sent university students abroad found themselves caught up in the crisis. Picked up outside their Khartoum hotel, Musa Abadi and Abdel-Majid al-Qarara’ah were taken to an intelligence office in Khartoum.
They were not charged, and they described the experience as surprisingly pleasant. Sleeping in an air-conditioned mosque, they passed the days in the facility’s gardens. “They were truly civilized with us,” Qarara’ah told Al-Monitor.
Abadi agreed, saying, “In the morning, they brought us breakfast, pots of coffee. If we didn’t like the food, they ordered takeaway for us.”
The businessmen said their detention followed violent protests at the Jordanian Embassy, where students were demanding the accreditation of school certificates from Sudan.
“They broke the door and insulted the ambassador and smashed some cars,” Qarara’ah said. Both men remain baffled by their detention, although Qarara’ah speculated that they were held because officials feared they would encourage the rioting students to keep protesting. “We had nothing to do with this,” Qarara’ah said.
After the exam period in Sudan ended, the businessmen were released. The students returned to their village, where a tribal reconciliation is underway between the family of the tortured student and the families of his assailants. They returned without certificates.
Abadi told Al-Monitor the leaked biology questions that sparked the crisis wouldn't have helped the students much, anyway, saying, “They weren’t the real exams. They were fake.”
George Hale contributed reporting from Amman.