Osama ‘Abd al-Raheem studies engineering at Helwan University, in the southern suburbs of Cairo. He is committed to his studies, and, like most young adults, he aspires to marry, to find a decent job that puts his hard-won skills to good use, to live a fulfilling life with his family, his friends, his culture, his country. But he looks with envy on those who are fifteen or twenty years older, who were able to buy homes and furnish them during the long-vanished days of easy money. When we talked, he expressed his frustration: “If a young man takes a job in Egypt, his salary will be about 500 Egyptian pounds [less than $100] per month, so he will have to work ten years to get married; if he goes abroad, he can get married much sooner.”
The disadvantage Osama must live with is that going abroad today is not the solution it was for young men twenty or more years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the prospects at home were little better than they are today, Egyptian laborers, mostly male, traveled to the oil-rich Gulf states and nearby Libya for work. The income they brought or sent back home enhanced living standards for many families. Overall, in fact, poverty declined.
Then, with the collapse of OPEC’s power and the crisis brought on by the 1991 Gulf War, many would-be Egyptian migrants had little choice but to stay home. For men, the blow was particularly harsh: often they could find no work in their fields of study, and what little money they did earn was not enough for the down payment on an apartment, a prerequisite for marriage. For Osama, the foreign safety valve has closed shut.
Many young Americans can probably empathize with Osama’s plight. Ambitious, highly educated graduates are often thrust, when they first enter the workforce, into low-paying and exhausting dead-end jobs, just to make ends meet. But the situation in Egypt is far more desperate than it is in the United States. With 72 million people, Egypt is the most populous of the twenty-two Arab states. Officially the nation’s unemployment rate is only about 9 percent. Studies that specifically track youth unemployment, however—in a nation where the median age is twenty—estimate that 25 percent of men and 59 percent of women are without work. As in the U.S., these studies include only people who are actively seeking a job, and part-time workers are considered employed.
Unemployment, though, is only one way to understand the plight of the young people in this large Arab country. Another set of critical issues is the distribution of power—which in Egypt largely coincides with the distribution of wealth—and the perception that the distribution is unjust. The class difference is rarely discussed as such, but it is certainly noticed, and it plays a major role in gaining access to such basic social services as technical training. Social gaps everywhere—between rich and poor, young and old, educated and illiterate, urbanite and farmer—reinforce the corrosive perception that the society does not reward its citizens on merit alone. The resounding cries by youth of “it’s unfair” often turn on income disparity.
Among those whose voices are raised are the Islamic militants, many of whom are men from relatively privileged backgrounds, familiar with Western ways. What often incites their anger is seeing their parents operate on principles other than those of idealistic fairness. And when these young men meet other, less privileged people who have substantial talents and abilities that are passed over by the likes of their parents, their outrage may grow to conspiratorial proportions.
Last fall I traveled to Cairo, a city where I’ve lived and worked on and off since 1994. Because I have many friends and contacts there and am reasonably fluent in the language, I was in a good position to take the pulse of the so-called Arab street. My aim was to sketch how ordinary lives are lived in a culture that Americans have largely ignored—ignored, that is, until they "learned" recently to regard virtually all Arab culture with fear and suspicion. The immediate questions that dog my fellow Americans—Why do they hate us? What do they think of our policies?—were not my first priority, though. My focus was to understand Egyptian concerns; to learn how Egyptians were facing up to universal questions about access to high-quality education, women’s evolving social roles, and career development; and to find out how their deeply held religious beliefs affect their interaction with the world at large.
At the root of Egypt’s dismal unemployment statistics are the nation’s weakness in the production and dissemination of knowledge and the government’s inadequate commitment to science and technology. Yet there is tremendous energy and enthusiasm for learning among Egyptian students. Every young person I spoke with acknowledged the need for job-related computer skills and for better access to information in a country where libraries are only now becoming more widely accessible.
The Ministry of Education likewise recognizes the need for computer skills, and so it has provided every public school in Egypt with at least one computer, and occasionally more than one. But school enrollments usually number in the hundreds, and the presence of one or two computers normally restricts usage to demonstrations by teachers at the front of the class.
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Perhaps even more detrimental is the lack of functioning, up-to-date laboratory apparatus in science education. Osama ‘Abd al-Raheem and several of his friends told me that as many as sixty students typically crowd around their professor as he performs experiments for the class. The reason is that nearly all of the aging equipment is broken. “The classes are crowded,” he says, “so it’s hard for the students to understand. So we just memorize the lessons.” Memorization is still the preferred method of learning in all disciplines, but in the sciences, the near total lack of hands-on experimental work suppresses the critical and creative skills needed to excel.
Painfully aware that their futures rest on the successful use of mouse and keyboard, Egyptian young people seek out the new technology. Cybercafés and computer training institutes now abound throughout Cairo, though all charge relatively high fees. Industrious youths save up the 2,000 to 3,000 Egyptian pounds (between $400 and $600) needed for a computer, then add peripherals, often secondhand, as their budgets permit. In the past few years, Egypt’s relatively open society has helped the country surpass most of the rich Gulf states in factors that measure computer-related growth. Internet connections, for instance, are now free, though the phone charges, which are based on the amount of time spent online, are relatively expensive. That said, the percentage of all Egyptians who have ever accessed the Internet remains in the single digits.
Among those energetically devoting themselves to improving the lot of young people are what are coming to be called the “new Islamists”—Muslims who believe their primary duty is to live exemplary lives and thereby improve the community. (By contrast, militants strive first to rid the world of disbelievers, condoning violence in the process.) Hosam Muhammad, a sturdily built twenty-nine-year-old, and his colleague Hisham Muhammad, a fine-boned, quiet-mannered twenty-three-year-old, both teach English in al-Nozha Language School, a clean and orderly Islamic school on the northeastern outskirts of Cairo. The school serves about a thousand students, from kindergarten through high school. Both men use the Internet to enhance their knowledge and to make friends with English speakers around the world, particularly in the U.S.
In their jackets and ties, dress slacks, and polished shoes, the two Arabs, one clean-shaven and the other wearing a neatly trimmed beard, look like refined, educated young professionals anywhere. Polite and modest, they laugh readily and banter charmingly, in English or in Arabic. And both strongly maintain that Islam has a transformative, restorative power for their society. In the classroom they teach values through example, as a way to complement their curriculum of intensive language training. Their ultimate jihad is to push their students along the path to a better future, both economically and morally.
Another “new Islamist” is ‘Abd al-Hafiz al-Sayyid Muhammad, the imam, or chief religious leader, at Omar Makram Mosque in downtown Cairo. In 1995, recognizing the need for knowledge and the traditional role of the mosque in education, ‘Abd al-Hafiz initiated computer courses in rooms above the prayer hall, diverting some of the mosque’s funding to the purchase of computers. (Literacy classes were already in place, for men and women.) Students—more than a thousand a year—flocked to the innovative program, not only to learn computer skills but also to learn English and a variety of vocational skills.
Women like Nermeen ‘Abd al-Tawab, a vivacious twenty-eight-year-old at the University of Cairo’s Faculty of Agriculture, exemplify another vibrant part of Egypt’s young generation. Her specialization, agricultural research, is one of the few bright spots in Egyptian science, perhaps because 44 percent of Egyptian workers are employed in agriculture. She studies the fungal infection white rot in garlic. White rot has important economic consequences, because it often devastates the bulbs as the garlic goes to market. As part of her doctoral research, Nermeen is applying the tools of biotechnology to develop garlic that is resistant to the virus. Thus occupied, she is postponing marriage until she finds someone she loves and respects. Her family supports her plan completely.
Compared with urbanites, girls from rural areas are apt to find less family support for their education, particularly when one or both of their parents are illiterate. Rural parents encourage their daughters to marry at earlier ages, even if that means marrying a first cousin (usually not a girl’s preference). But in Cairo education is a lifeline for many females, giving them hope and freedom no matter how humble (or how high) their origins. While they are in school, they don’t have to compete for jobs that are unlikely to be offered to them anyway. And if they enjoy studies, they have the chance to learn more than any of their predecessors and to be respected for their achievements.
The social barriers to women in Egypt are by no means as stringent as they are in Muslim countries that impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Some Egyptian women even initiate divorce.
[pagebreak]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.