Egypt’s Young and Restless

Through Islam and the Internet, a new generation seeks its fair share.

Mai Mostafa, a tall, slender thirty-two-year-old designer and artist, elaborated on the hazards of poor mate selection and divorce: “For every woman who lives in the East, marriage is very important. We’ve been brought up prepared to become wives later. We have a saying that the woman who dares to ask for a divorce helps the house collapse.” Mai’s father encouraged her to complete her education and to work for a few years, to become independent-minded and self-reliant. He did not exactly approve of her marriage partner, but assured her of his confidence in any choice she made. After the marriage failed, Mai was grateful that, again, her father supported her decision to get divorced.

In spite of the recognition of the need, attempts to establish world-class research and educational institutes in Egypt have foundered. Ahmed Zewail of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, the Egyptian-American who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, convinced the government to build a state-of-the-art university for science and technology. More than four years after the ground-breaking ceremony, however, his dream has yet to be realized.

For most young people, then, the only option is to leave the country, a choice that simply exacerbates the already pernicious brain drain. One student I met in Egypt two years ago, who received a grant to study in a computer sciences department at a U.S. university in the Midwest, assured me he would return to Egypt after completing his Ph.D. program. When I spoke with him more recently, he was equally fervent in his insistence that he has no plans to return. The reason? In the U.S. he can do research that builds on the latest developments and can produce work others will draw on. He’ll stay in the loop, rather than outside it.

According to the 2003 Arab Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme, the uneven distribution of income is a critical obstacle to reform and progress. Estimates of extreme poverty in Egypt range from 30 to 40 percent of the population, much of it concentrated in the rural areas, where about 55 percent of the people live. In Cairo, perhaps 20 percent are truly poor; the vast majority of people are of modest means and must rely on free social services and education to improve their lot in life.

But their options are severely restricted. For example, on the basis of their grade on the thanawiyya ‘amma, a single national test given at the end of secondary school, young people are assigned a profession, such as physician, accountant, tour guide, and so on. High scorers have the right to choose a “lesser” profession than the one they qualify for, but they normally don’t, because of the social stigma attached.

None of these problems exist, of course, for the tiny minority of people who have money. The influence of wealth only begins at school; it extends to the upper echelons in all walks of life, a fact that has provoked widespread concern. In particular, the unfairness of the yawning gulf between the haves and the have-nots has engendered the outrage that has led Islamic militants to pursue their restrictive interpretation of religious law. But in conversations with militants from both modest and privileged backgrounds, I have heard a common theme: many militants would relinquish their arms if the laws already in existence were applied fairly and equally.

A comparison to the U.S. youth movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s—when, similarly, supersize cohorts of impatient, idealistic young people felt largely left out of the political process—is tempting. No, Egyptian youth are not staging sit-ins and crashing the gates of the political arena. But the reason they aren’t may have more to do with the class barrier and the skewed demographics of sitting politicians than any lack of political will. A substantial number of Egyptian ministers are more than sixty-five years old, belonging to an age group that makes up just 2.2 percent of the population. Most youths cannot visualize themselves in positions of power. What they hope for is that someone they trust, whether judge or religious leader or someone else in tune with their needs, will demand and achieve for them the fairness that, in principle, the law asserts.

Although the government seems little moved by the youth crisis, there are promising signs of reform through the youth committee of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). The committee’s head, Mohamed M. Kamal, is especially encouraged that though nearly 70 percent of the population is under thirty, qualified people are finding work in the private sector.

Leading citizens have also initiated projects not only through Islamic institutions but also through governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and many of these reform efforts target the young. Approximately 16,000 NGOs now respond to the needs of civil society in Egypt. “We have proven as Egyptians, as Arabs, as Muslims that we can be very successful,” asserts Hesham Dinana, a hard-driving thirty-nine-year-old engineer overseeing construction of a new children’s cancer hospital in Cairo (it is dubbed Hospital 57357, after the number of the bank account that takes donations). Hesham spent more than a dozen years climbing the corporate ladder in the U. S. before returning to Egypt to contribute to this “people’s project.” With donations from across the classes, the cancer hospital, probably the largest NGO in Egypt, is proof that the Egyptian people are willing to share the burden to reduce the epidemic of childhood cancers.

Many young people do express hope for the future. Perhaps the most unusual source of optimism for the young is the media. Egyptian national television, long dominated by the monotonous recitation of news briefs and a parade of sleepy soap operas, faces a challenge in attracting the youth, who have turned to the satellite channel al-Jazeera, based in Qatar. Hussein ‘Abd el-Ghani, Bureau Chief of al-Jazeera’s Cairo office, boasts that the satellite channel “is the first reliable source of news for the young,” and it is now the most-watched station among the youth of Egypt, according to the results of a recent survey. Young people told me they like its edgy style, its fast pace, and its no-sacred-cows approach to topics and people. Not only advertisers should be pleased by the numbers, because it’s getting young people to think about politics, talk openly and critically about national and international events, and realize they deserve a place in shaping their nation’s future. Although provocative for the region, al-Jazeera helps release some of the frustration felt by Egyptian youth. And it affirms their identity as young, strong, and Arab.


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