On January 9, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made a promise “from the heart of a father to his sons”: to make 2016 “the year of the youth” through programs that activate young people’s role in the nation by providing access to key knowledge and participation in education, culture, economy and politics.
Sisi’s announcement came a year and half after he took charge of a country in crisis and five years after a revolution demanding bread, freedom and social justice. Young people aspiring for a life free from the control of the patriarchal state and a dignified livelihood were at the heart of that uprising.
“The revolution brought to surface tough questions about young people,” says Reem Saad, an anthropologist at the American University in Cairo. “Who they are? What do they do? What do they want?” In a country where 43.4 percent of the population are aged between 15 and 40, according to the 2015 numbers from official statistics agency CAPMAS, these questions are pivotal.
The promise of the state
In his speech, Sisi referred to the Presidential Leadership Program (PLP), an education program open to Egyptians under 30 with a university degree and no criminal record. It includes visits to the Armed Forces’ Morale Affairs Department, military special forces, air defense and naval forces, and the Military Academy. Topics for discussion include governance, public administration, entrepreneurship and national security.
“The program gave us facts that we could not reach on our own,” Mohamed Moawad, a 27-year-old engineer who completed the PLP, tells Mada Masr. “It helped us find solutions and gave us the space to express our opinions.”
Moawad comes from a family of government employees and works for state-owned petroleum company ENPPI, which enabled him to take part in Sisi’s national projects throughout the country before participating in the PLP. “Most of us were already working for the government before joining the program,” he says.
Sisi also inaugurated several youth conferences in 2016, starting with Sharm el-Sheikh and ending with the first monthly youth conference in December. Moawad, who attended both, believes having a regular meeting with young people indicates “the continuity of the idea of youth participation, and that the government is keen to listen to them.”
In Sharm el-Sheikh, Moawad presented a project on how to encourage young people to participate in politics, although he himself has no experience or interest in political participation. What he is looking for is “full empowerment” and a way to serve his country.
In the political sphere, the parliament that was elected and started working in January had almost a third of its seats filled by members aged below 45.
The budget allocated to the youth sector was near stagnant, with a slight increase to LE4.1 billion in the year ending in June 2017, up from LE3.9 billion in the same period a year earlier and LE3.6 billion in the fiscal year 2014/15. Despite the minimal budget increase, the Ministry of Youth and Sports developed and renovated several youth sporting clubs around the country, most recently allocating LE600,000 to support activities in dozens of youth centers in Aswan.
“Policies for holding conversations with young people, or giving them quotas or public positions, are limited. More quotas could easily be implemented, albeit with a much more limited effect,” says Dina Shehata, editor in chief of the Al-Malaf Al-Masry (The Egyptian File) periodical issued by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Solving the real problems of young people has to come through public policies for education, health, employment and the private sector.”
Rather than suggesting that targeting young Egyptians as an influential social category is impossible, Shehata notes the absence of effective targeting from the government agenda this year.
“These policies serve the creation of cadres that are loyal to the regime and in agreement with its policies,” says Shehata. “At the same time, they also serve to include a group that is supposedly less fortunate in social mobility and professional progress.”
The other side of the promise
“That’s where the fear lay, in the loss of part of your life in prison, for something that wasn’t worth it, for no reason,” says Mohamed Nagy, a man in his 20s, describing his feelings on being sentenced to five years in jail for protesting. “But also you lose memories with the people you love.”
Nagy was among 46 people arrested on April 25 for protesting Egypt’s transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia. They were released after an appeals court reversed their prison sentences but upheld a LE100,000 fine, which was paid through a popular campaign.
“Following the January 25, 2011 revolution, the state took upon itself the responsibility to make sure that such a scene would not repeat itself,” says Mohamed Salem, a member of the Egyptian Democratic Social Party’s policy-making committee. This has meant young people must choose to either abide by the rule of the powerful or be antagonized by the state, he adds.
The clearest sign of the state crackdown on youth freedoms and voices this year was the abolishing of state student unions elections, which epitomized a year of a stalled student activity. The Higher Education Ministry suspended the election of Egypt’s Student Union, a strong umbrella organization that includes all elected student union leaders nationwide.
The ministry was heavily criticized for supporting certain student groups in favor of the government’s line, as student leaders called for academic freedoms and the release of students arrested on university campuses since 2013. In an attempt to further control the student movement, the ministry suggested bringing back student bylaws passed under Hosni Mubarak in 2007, to opposition from students and faculty.
“The student movement has been diminishing [this year] because most of its leaders were either in prison or suspended, and cannot enter universities,” says Nagy, who manages the academic freedoms portfolio at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, citing the violent crackdown on student movements since June 30, 2013, when Muslim Brotherhood rule was ended through a people-backed military coup. “Remaining students feared participating in any [political] activity in universities. This state of fear led to the death of the student movement in 2016.”
Fear was not limited to students and protesters. Indeed, all attempts by young scholars to carry out research were met with suspicion, as experienced by Alia Mossallam, a 35-year-old social historian and researcher.
Mossallam worked with a group of young scholars in the Suez Canal city of Port Said for a workshop titled “Tell Your Story, History” to gather locals’ oral histories, specifically their experiences with anti-colonial resistance in the 1950s. She says they were regularly stopped by police informants. “We were regularly visited at our hotel and interrogated about what we are researching and why,” Mossallam says, adding that every time they gave lectures, informants would listen from behind the doors.
Like other researchers, she also found it difficult to access historical records, which are shielded by the discretion of the security apparatus.
Mossallam is preparing to leave the country to develop her research, a move she says is normal for a scholar as there’s little funding in Egypt. Official statistics on the extent of brain drain in Egypt are lacking, but anecdotal evidence points to a phenomenon of young scholars and professional increasingly leaving the country to conduct research or work abroad.
What about livelihoods?
Egypt’s unemployment rate stood at 12.5 percent of the labor force at the end of June. Of the unemployed, almost 80 percent were aged 15 to 29, according to CAPMAS. Youth unemployment in Egypt “is a ticking time bomb” according to a June report from the US-based Brookings Institution, which highlighted the decaying higher education sector, such as public universities’ failing financial model and a lack of investment in vocational training, and an absence of an overall economic development policy that prioritizes job creation.
“The main strategy to solve the youth unemployment crisis is through macroeconomic policies that stimulate the economy,” says labor economist Ghada Barsoum. “As is apparent, that has not been done amid the economic crisis.”
Sisi has embarked on an economic program that aims to cut the state’s budget deficit through austerity measures such as lifting of subsidies on key commodities and floating the currency. These measures sent inflation rate rocketing to 20.2 percent in November, its highest level since 2008.
Rising production costs and lack of foreign currency liquidity have further challenged the private sector, which shrank for the fourth consecutive month in November, prompting the employment rate to drop for the 18th consecutive month to 45.1, compared with 46.2 in October, data from an Emirates NBD Egypt PMI survey showed.
As job creation became a casualty in the authorities’ crisis response, limited government-backed employment schemes became a token gesture of support for young people.
In 2015, the government sought to create jobs by offering a few hundred cars to young people between the ages of 21 and 45 to sell vegetables in a project named Egypt’s Goods Cars. The Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt) fund, initiated by Sisi, also financed an initiative where a few hundred taxis were provided for young people.
“Young people end up working for the informal sector because the formal sector is incapable of matching emerging young people with new jobs,” says Barsoum, adding that the ability of the informal economy to grow is limited as it lacks financial and technological resources. As such, “young people in the informal economy tend to be more vulnerable to crowding out.”
A fifth of unemployed Egyptians hold a university degree, and these people may resort to entrepreneurship in an attempt to take the matter into their own hands while also facing a tough market in terms of investments and services and products’ reach. The average success rate for entrepreneurs in Egypt is just 40 percent, with only 5 percent achieving significant success, according to Tarek Fahim, a venture capitalist and partner at Endure Ventures.
Ahmed Mahmoud, a 27-year-old IT graduate, currently works for a successful startup in technological services, with customers in the Gulf and the US and expanding. But prior to that Mahmoud was part of a startup that could not enter the Egyptian market due to lack of investments and inability to find customers, he tells Mada Masr.
“Funding [for startups], especially with the economic situation now, is very hard,” says Maram Shalaby, PR and media contact for the American University in Cairo Venture Lab. “It takes a lot of money to develop an application. I think this is one of the main reasons for the some startups’ failure.”
The AUC Venture Lab is a startup incubator and accelerator that helps entrepreneurs develop ideas and business models and connect to investors. Targeting high-growth and innovation-driven startups, they have so far worked with 55 startups and helped them raise LE26 million in total.
There are few options left for young people from middle and low-income backgrounds, and the disillusion of Egypt’s young people is both political and economic. Saad depicts a different approach from the state on each front: “When it comes to political and personal rights, the state is extremely patriarchal,” she says, “but when it comes to economic rights, the state is completely absent.”
Additional reporting by Mai Shams El-Din