The Egyptian youth represent the majority of Egypt’s population and share a sense of detachment from, and lack of trust in, the country’s political life. They dream of a decent and stable job, affordable housing, and good health services. As a result of the political stalemate, one out four of them sees emigration rather than political engagement as the solution to their problems—a few turn to radicalism.
Nine out of ten jobless in Egypt are under age 30, with women disproportionately unemployed. Only 50 percent of young males and 10 percent of young females find a job within two years after leaving school. As a result, these youth spend years—sometimes lifetimes—waiting for a job that matches their skills and meets their pay expectations. In the meantime, they are forced to delay marriage and childbearing, and live longer with their parents. Statistics show that 60 percent of males and 47 percent of females remain unmarried beyond the age of 30.
Those who want to create their own business rapidly lose hope. Policies that support youth entrepreneurship seem appealing in the pro-regime newspapers, but facts on the ground are different. The economic and social conditions of Egyptian youth call for firm government action to help give them a sense of hope and inclusion, and prevent further brain drain, or radicalization; but it’s a call that’s gone largely unheeded.
Demographic weight without political voice
Of the Egypt’s 80 million residents, two-thirds are under 30. With such a large youth population, it makes sense that government should focus on youth issues. This is unfortunately not the case.
Most Egyptian youth are disengaged from politics; voting at low rates and participating even less in political parties. The 2009 Survey on Young People in Egypt conducted by the Population Council reveals that less than one percent of young people in the 18-29 age group belong to a political party, and only 16 percent of eligible youth cast their votes in the last election: 21 percent of men and 11 percent of women. Those who voted were mostly from the middle- and upper-middle income categories. These results no doubt reflect their disappointment with the lack of freedom of expression and civic participation in the country, as well as the outdated mode of most political parties, which rely on language and symbols that hold little appeal for the new generations.
Political youth movements advocating reform, such as the April 6 Movement, have emerged recently in Egypt, causing a stir in society and gaining regional and international attention. They show how youth can use peaceful means to effect change and influence government policies. The Internet has helped expand the youth movements’ way of expressing themselves and break the state monopoly on communication channels. But the state has remained largely unresponsive, and it has also cracked down on some areas of the internet and peaceful mobilization. Disillusionment still outpaces any hope for real change.
Unemployment and bleak prospects
Unemployment is the primary issue for Egypt’s youth, with a large mismatch between job opportunities and education provided by schools and universities. Even though the young are more educated than other job seekers, most jobs in Egypt are of poor quality, offered as part of the informal sector, and only attract less-educated workers. The informal sector has created a large number of jobs during the past decade. Migration is increasingly seen as the solution to unemployment among the highly educated.
The prevalence of patronage and nepotism makes the issue of unemployment even worse. Unlike youth from richer backgrounds who rely on dense networks, those from unprivileged families usually end up with a poor education and bad jobs. The social order in Egypt seems broken.
Hostile business environment
Most young people are drawn to entrepreneurship to escape unemployment and bad jobs. Often, however, they are insufficiently educated and trained to successfully establish and run their own businesses. A recent survey reveals that the educational system is one of the top three factors constraining entrepreneurship in Egypt. Lack of government support and the absence of a focused attention to the needs of young entrepreneurs emerge as the second and third impediments, respectively.
Although the national culture supports individual success, it does not encourage autonomy and entrepreneurial risk-taking. The tax burden on small and medium businesses is substantial. A lack of financial resources and the shortage or absence of collateral also excludes a large share of Egypt’s youth from pursuing their projects. Again, while personal connections help some survive and grow in the Egyptian business sector, others are not so lucky.
What should the Egyptian government do?
The Egyptian government needs to give a very high priority to the educational and socio-economic needs of youth. This should include clear policy interventions in the education, labor, and credit markets.
First, policy makers need to make sure the skills taught in classrooms more closely align with the needs of the labor and business markets. They should focus on encouraging creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills, as well as spurring entrepreneurship and autonomy in students.
Second, despite a significant improvement in female education, women face many restrictions in society overall. The authorities should open up economic and political opportunities for young women, specifically offering better access to education and health in rural areas, as well as greater political empowerment and participation in the economy. A first step would be to promote female registration to vote, as well as increase the number of electable women and enable them to get a foothold in politics. The recent introduction of a female quota in parliament, by endowing women with 12.6 percent of the seats (64 seats) of the People’s Assembly, represents a step in the right direction.
Third, Egypt has introduced some reforms to encourage entrepreneurship, such as reducing the minimum capital requirement and easing registration for new businesses. However, most reforms only benefited large businesses in the capital city. Youth working on smaller projects still suffer from cumbersome procedures, difficulty of access to finance, insufficient coordination among government departments, and red tape that is clogged with corruption and lack of transparency. To encourage young entrepreneurs, the government should continue to streamline procedures and regulations and facilitate access to finance.
Fourth, political leaders should introduce mechanisms to encourage youth to run for office and vote in elections. The age thresholds for elected office—35 years for the Shura council (upper house of parliament) and 30 years for the People’s Assembly—should be lowered to allow younger leaders to share in decision-making.
By taking these steps, policy makers could encourage the country’s youth to be fully engaged and productive members of a growing economy and polity. Without it, they face the possibility that this forgotten majority may either continue to feel detached from public affairs or be attracted by extremist groups who take advantage of their sense of despair.