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Justin Martin and Fathiya Al-Bahlani Headshot

Young, Schooled and Stuck

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CAIRO -- Back in 2007, Ahmed was reading Dostoyevsky and applying for a job in English-Arabic translation. An Egyptian in his mid-twenties with a disarming smile, Ahmed graduated from college several years ago, is multi-lingual, and has charm. A year ago, though, he was working the reception desk at a youth hostel.

Ahmed didn't get the translation job, and is now trying to find work at English-language call centers in Cairo, but no supervisors are calling back. There is a glut of English-speaking college graduates in Egypt, and employers are austerely selective.

Employment woes here differ from many other African countries, for according to the World Bank, Egypt's jobless and underemployed are predominantly young, substantially educated, and non-poor.

Unlike Liberia, Zimbabwe or Djibouti, for example, where employment shortages rage across age and education cordons, those without work in Egypt, as well as those working service jobs incommensurate to their skills, are often young and highly trained. The number of young, schooled Egyptians has soared in recent years, and the Egyptian labor market hasn't expanded apace.

Official estimates of unemployment in Egypt orbit 10 percent, according to the World Bank and the Egyptian Ministry of Finance. Not as bad as in Libya and Sudan, the country's two largest neighbors, but Egypt still has higher jobless rates than 120 countries around the world.

Unemployment among high school graduates, however, is close to 30 percent, and the jobless rate for college grads hovers around 12 to 15 percent, according to Philippe Fargues, Director of the Center for Forced Migration and Refugees at the American University in Cairo.

"Unemployment in Egypt is much bigger among those with diplomas than those without them," he says. "Not all skilled workers in Egypt can find jobs."

Ahmed's inability to find a job with a livable wage is a great source of sadness for him. He recently mentioned over tea at a Cairo McDonald's that he desperately wants to get married. Lowering his voice under the din of McDonald's Radio, he mumbles that two of his best friends are marrying European women and will soon move to EU countries to study and find work. "I want to get married so badly," he said, slowly shaking his head and fiddling with his cell phone.
Marriage preparations in Egyptian society often demand years of savings, however, and Ahmed's hotel position doesn't leave him with any accruing stash. In Egyptian culture, marriage is something of a social arrival for a man -- as a capable earner, a provider, someone who commands respect. The inability to afford wedding arrangements is, for many young Egyptian men, an emasculating shortcoming.

This sense of hopelessness pervades much of Egypt's young, educated classes, and is something Rami Khouri, Director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy at the American University of Beirut, calls Egypt's and the larger Arab world's "crisis of dignity." Many Egyptians, Khouri says, feel that they haven't been given a chance to improve their lives and are demoralized by their lack of self-efficacy--one's feeling that he or she can affect life's outcomes in positive ways. To have self-efficacy is to feel that one's future is in control, and the feeling is fragile. A few job rejections can make a person feel as though their professional future is immutable.

Egypt's crisis of dignity isn't helped by the fact that government efforts to fight unemployment and underemployment in Egypt are unclear. In a recent press conference, Egyptian Finance Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali was less than specific when asked to identify the two most important government programs addressing Egypt's employment forecast. "Growth, growth, and growth," was his terse response.

Yes, the Egyptian economy has recently demonstrated strong growth -- about 7 percent in 2007 -- but such expansion means little to young people who still cannot find profitable work.

To be sure, if the Egyptian economy keeps growing at a 7 percent clip each year, the situation for young workers is bound to improve. For the time being, though, many young Egyptians are webbed in a state of professional inertia.

Lives of young Egyptians like Ahmed are highly static. He has spent all of his life under Hosni Mubarak's autocratic rule. Egypt's emergency laws restricting civil liberties have been part of his life for as long as he can remember. So, too, is his financial station resistant to change.

But while financial immobility is a familiar part of the lives of Egyptian youth, many like Ahmed are still crushed with despair. After they finish school and learn languages they are told are lucrative, fruitful employment eludes them. Prepared for the workplace, they are still somewhat unprepared for the lack of opportunities when they get there. Cairo is frenetic and is a difficult place to idle, particularly for people who were trained to do otherwise.

Justin Martin is a Ph.D. student in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Fathiya Al-Bahlani studies international affairs at Qatar University.

Twelve Americans, twelve Arabs, two countries - The AUC-QU Middle East journalism Boot Camp took place in June 2008, bringing together students from ten of the top U.S. journalism schools, The American University in Cairo and Qatar University in a unique three-week program of lectures, high-level briefings and site visits in Egypt and Qatar.