At the boiling point

'Most Egyptians think only about today: how to work enough to get food, clothes, and cigarettes.'

egypt protest 298 (photo credit: Orly Halpern)
egypt protest 298
(photo credit: Orly Halpern)
Ahmed and Ashraf live in a luxury apartment building on a street lined with shiny SUVs and tall trees in the upscale Cairo neighborhood called Zamalek. While only a few floors and a couple of years separate them, their worlds could not be further apart.

Ahmed, 28, grew up in a spacious home decorated with china and crystal, wall-to-wall carpeting and marble statues. His father was a high-ranking politician in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and served as the country's deputy interior minister. Ahmed studied at the Sorbonne and, upon returning to Cairo, landed a job as a stock market analyst. He drives a nice car and rents his own apartment.

But Ahmed is a rare breed in Egypt. He belongs to the aristocracy connected by money and politics to the ruling party.

Downstairs, in the building's basement, lives 26-year-old Ashraf. His father is the building's doorman. Ashraf had to work his way through school to get a degree in engineering at a local university.

"I did everything," said Ashraf. "I was a driver, a porter, a laborer, a farmer. I used to study at night."

However, unlike his upstairs neighbor, Ashraf did not find a cushy job upon finishing his education. Instead he found himself in the same situation as millions of other young Egyptians: unemployed.

In a more developed country, the bright and ambitious Ashraf might be a salaried employee with a company car and a fat paycheck. In the Egypt of his parents' youth, he probably would have been an uneducated farmer or laborer who, like them, lived a simple life and accepted poverty as his lot.

But Ashraf's life is not quite like either of those situations. Like most people his age, he is marooned between Egypt's poor but traditional past and the gleaming, wealthy future it longs to embrace. Ashraf's neighborhood is full of chic boutiques, Wi-Fi-equipped coffee shops, shiny cars - all pleasures that he can't afford to enjoy, and Ahmed can.

"Ahmed is happy," he said of his upstairs neighbor. "These rich guys have cars, [they can afford their] studies, they smoke hashish and have girls. Yet our life is difficult. So, yeah, we're a little angry."

Talented and educated, but jobless and without prospects, Ashraf "represents 90 percent of his generation," said Dr. Yoram Meital, an Egypt expert from Ben-Gurion University. Job demand is high in today's Egypt, but supply is low - leaving millions of young people without a future, caught between the socialist country that no longer exists and the globalizing capitalist one, which is not yet ready to stand on its own.

What's more, corruption controls most aspects of the economy and government.

"In Egypt, you need wasta," said Ashraf, referring to what Israelis would call protektzia, "and I don't know anyone who can help me. I would see ads in the newspaper. I would go to the company. But no wasta, no job."

You don't have to be the son of a doorman to suffer from a lack of wasta, either.

"All the young people are in my situation," said Ashraf. "We work in services. We don't have opportunities."

While Ahmed from upstairs has a high-paying job he got through a combination of smarts and connections, Ashraf does mechanical repairs on machines for meager sums.

"I have friends with wasta who sit in the office drinking coffee and reading the paper and get 1,500-2,000 Egyptian pounds a month," Ashraf continued. Meanwhile, he said, "I'm downstairs sweating and working for 350."

That's about $60. To supplement his income, Ashraf does odd jobs after work. Usually, he does repairs at people's homes.

"Our life is very difficult," he said. "The ignorant people - that's most - think only about today: how to work enough to get food, clothes, and cigarettes."

The lack of work opportunities causes many young Egyptians to try to get visas to travel abroad. They're willing to go anywhere, Ashraf explained: Italy, America, the Emirates. "Any country," as he said, "that can offer us a chance."

UNEMPLOYMENT PROBLEMS began as early as the 1970s, when a shortage of jobs in the countryside and rapid urbanization led many to migrate to the cities. In greater Cairo, for example, the population doubled between 1970 and 1980.

Ashraf was among those migrants. When he was five, he moved to Cairo from the small farming village of Saydeh Bahari in Aswan with his father, mother and elder sister. His father found a job as the doorman of the apartment building in Zamalek. The upside was free accommodations under the stairwell, a place to raise the children in a wealthy district of the sprawling capital rather than in the slums which would have been all he could have afforded.

At the time, Egypt was already facing problems of low productivity and poor economic management. The massive urban overcrowding, combined with the huge population growth, placed a great burden on infrastructure. Housing became a hot commodity. Still today, supply is low, demand is high, and prices are even higher.

"Do you know how much it costs to rent an apartment?" asked Ashraf, who sleeps in a room so narrow that it barely contains a single bed and space to walk past it. "You pay 20,000 guineas [about $3,500] up front, then 100-200 guineas a month."

Low pay and high rents are even affecting young Egyptians' love lives, as many of the country's young Muslims are now entering their thirties without tying the knot. Islam requires a man to provide for his wife - and women in Egypt are still not expected or encouraged to work - so in effect, if a man cannot rent an apartment, he cannot marry.

"I think about marriage. My whole family wants me to marry," said a dejected Ashraf. "I want to live better than they do. But to marry, I need 40,000-50,000 guineas. I need to find good employment, and then I need to build my life, my future. I need an apartment, car, money... all these things so that I can be happy."

ECONOMISTS SAY that the roots to today's crisis are all too clear.

Egypt is in the process of transforming from a state-run economy, with a high number of bureaucratic jobs and little efficiency or growth, to a free-market economy in a global market based on private investment and fewer state-owned industries. During this transition phase, the government has made it easier for foreign companies to invest in Egypt - slashing numerous needless government jobs and selling unproductive state-owned factories. Although the economic growth rate has increased, it has not helped people like Ashraf. There is just not yet enough private industry and investment to replace the jobs that have been lost.

In 1950, Egypt had a population of about 18 million. Today, after a baby boom, the country is bursting with a population of 77 million, which grows by a million each year. Egypt is now the most populous country in the Arab world - and youth account for more than half its population.

Young people are now flooding the job market by the millions. As a result, unemployment is high - official estimates mark it at about 11 percent of the potential workforce, but unofficial estimates put the figure closer to 25% - and it's especially high amongst the young.

In an August article published in the English-language weekly Al-Ahram, Samir Radwan, the managing director of the Economic Research Forum for the Arab Countries, Iran and Turkey, wrote that unemployment tends to be highest among the educated. He put the figures at 33% for those with intermediate education, 19% for those with above-intermediate education, and 12% among university graduates.

"Given this situation, young people seek to emigrate or join the ranks of the low-productivity informal sector. "Youth unemployment is essentially a time bomb," said Radwan. "The negative economic and social repercussions of such a situation cannot be overemphasized. Reducing youth unemployment needs to be at the heart of any strategy to reduce unemployment."

THE DEARTH OF JOBS is also becoming a security risk. The situation creates "a greater potential for the jihad movements to find recruits among the poor disenfranchised of Egyptian society," said Ben-Gurion University's Meital.

The National Intelligence Council (NIC) - a think tank within the CIA - agrees. Last year, it convened to discuss the problem of unemployed, frustrated youth throughout the Middle East and concluded that they are ripe recruits for terrorism.

"Although population pressures in themselves do not lead directly to extremism, a combination of high population growth with economic stagnation can produce thwarted economic and social aspirations," read a report of the NIC's findings. "The frustration born out of this is ripe for exploitation by organized groups of whatever religious or political persuasion."

While the problem is by no means limited to Egypt, the NIC specifically named Egypt as a country with the kind of volatile mix of "lagging economy, ethnic affiliations, intense religious convictions, and youth bulges" that could align to create a 'perfect storm,' creating conditions likely to spawn internal conflict."

The NIC also put the responsibility for dealing with the problem squarely on the shoulders of the state.

"Those states unable both to satisfy the expectations of their peoples and to resolve or quell conflicting demands among them are likely to encounter the most severe and most frequent outbreaks of violence," it wrote.

Egyptian youth are definitely far from being satisfied. Beyond the lack of employment opportunities, many Egyptians young and old feel that they have no freedom or control over their destiny. President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party has been in power for generations; since the assassination of former president Anwar Sadat in 1981, Egyptians have been living under martial law, which severely limits their rights to criticize the government.

In April, a number of Egyptians, most in their twenties, educated and living in a poor Cairo suburb, were involved or suspected of involvement in three terrorist attacks in Cairo that targeted tourists.

"The deviance of youth, prompted by the suffocating economic crisis and consequent unemployment, is fuel to the culture of violence and terrorism," MP Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, who is also a member of Egypt's National Council for Human Rights, told the Al-Wafd daily newspaper after the attacks. "We are walking on a minefield."

Professor Elhami Abdel-Aziz told Al-Wafd that "Violence is testimony to the oppression suffered by individuals since childhood, becoming a means to express pain... Research has proven that when a sense of justice is lost, depression takes over and examples of violence begin to spring up, metamorphosing into a culture within society."

Economic and political stagnation, according to the NIC report, "is the scenario most likely to encourage the continuance of terrorism. Poor economic performance and lack of progress in the development of democratic institutions fuels unemployment, lowers living standards and leads to frustration that can be exploited by groups that espouse violence as a means to promote change."

TO ITS CREDIT, the government is seeking ways to address the potentially explosive problem. In the opening address at 2002's Youth Employment Summit, which Egypt hosted, Mubarak's wife Suzanne told youth, businessmen, academics and government officials from around the world: "We can only ignore this problem [unemployment among the youth] at our own collective risk... Otherwise, we face the specter of hundreds of millions of half-educated, unemployed youths in the cities of the developing world... [who would be] easy prey to social pathologies, a social and political time bomb waiting to tear apart the order and stability from which they have been excluded."

Also in 2002, the NDP set up a national Youth Committee. Dr. Mohammed Kamal, who holds a PhD in international relations from Johns Hopkins University, was appointed to head it. So far, the going has been rough for Kamal. Over the past three years, the sharp 30-something executive has proposed many youth-oriented ideas. But in Egypt's centralized regime, he is unable to implement many of them.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post days after Mubarak was elected to his fifth term, Kamal said his main achievement was that "most ministries now try to integrate youth policy into their own policies."

His big success to date came earlier this year, when he introduced mortgages to Egypt so that young men could buy homes without having to pay all the money up front. But interest rates are still too high to help young couples, Kamal lamented.

Creating more jobs, more housing and more democratic government is beyond his power, however. Only Mubarak can do that. "The president has promised," Kamal said.

Meanwhile, Mubarak's son, 41-year-old Gamal, has established and chairs the Future Generation Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides youth with practical competitive skills - such as English, computers, and management - that are needed in modern businesses but are not taught properly in Egypt's overcrowded tuition-free universities.

Gamal, who increasingly appears to be his father's likely replacement, was appointed by his father to be the NDP's general secretary of the Policy Committee - the third most powerful position in the party - and has made a series of speeches on behalf of the party outlining his plans for greater democracy, freedom of expression and higher living standards. Emphasis is on the younger generation.

These changes are significant, said Meital. "We are in a historical phase. We cannot ignore that we are now living in an atmosphere of change," he said. "But it's too early to know whether it will be a success," he added. "It can go either way."

Millions of people like Ashraf are hoping things will go their way - and soon.

"I'll tell you something," he said in a quiet voice. "We love Mubarak. But we want our lives to be better than this."