«I’m young but I feel a hundred years old»*
Dina Kabil, Olaa Hamdi - 19/03/2010
“An engineer, a doctor, a pilot …an engineer, a doctor, a pilot…” The same words are continuously repeated whilst the camera takes a close-up shot of the circular shapes adorning a swing in an amusement park. The rides seem outrageously huge and the lighting makes the rides’ colours dazzle everywhere. In the background lies a young man staring at the swing’s movements. He is immersed in his childhood memories. You can read great sadness in his eyes.
This scene is taken from a video installation recently presented by Hala Al Qoussi in Cairo. Right from the very start, we can see a huge difference between this young man’s pitiful reality in the present and his sweet inventive answers when asked his favourite question as a child “What would you like to be when you grow up?” Children loved taking turns speaking of their future plans becoming a doctor, an engineer or a pilot. However, just as they started looking for jobs they realised that all their ambitions were purely dreams and childish games.
Young Egyptians seem they’ve already tasted the bitterness of life; it’s as though they’ve already inherited their elders’ problems just as they are coming out of their adolescence. Of course they would love to travel but now travelling is not linked to the thrill of departing, emancipation or exploring the world. Travelling is no longer an indispensable experience to build their personality or enhance their knowledge. No! Now travelling is the last alternative out of unemployment, clogging abstrusely their horizons.
Young Egyptians now dream of finding a job overseas. They no longer trust their education system. By pursuing their studies or following training courses abroad can they only be guaranteed security and find their place in such a scary and continuously changing world. “Our generation can’t see further than the tip of their nose! It’s over; there are no more long term objectives to reach! Every step we take in the right direction is in reality just half a step” , says Mohamed Tariq, a student at the faculty of engineering, summarising the situation faced by Egyptian youth, without pitying himself too much or using a melodramatic tone.
Poverty, unemployment, the deteriorating education system, have caste youth ….
This reality gives you enough reason to dream of elsewhere. Disarray and the impossibility of planning your future are two common traits pertaining to a large majority of Egyptian youth today.
According to the most recent census drawn by the Central Organisation for Statistics and General Mobilisation, youth in Egypt represent 35, 5% of the Egyptian population, an approximate equal percentage between males and females (12,2 million and 12,1 million respectively).
Unemployment is the biggest problem amongst Egyptian youth. According to the ministry of manpower, compared to the 8, 7% of the population which is active, 14, 5% of the population between the age of 15 and 29 are unemployed. Unemployment is leaving a negative impact on both those holding a diploma (technicians, etc TN) and those holding a degree. They have no choice but to put their qualifications aside and accept petty jobs the market is offering them.
Mahmoud Abdel Rahim welcomes our interview with a pleasant smile, although his smile is hiding his worries. He is the eldest son of a poor family of eight. He is a law graduate from the University of Hilwane (South Cairo, TN). When we asked him about “his future ambitions”, he ironically answered: “What ambitions and what future!” He completed his studies in law but is now working as a sales agent in a private company. “To hell with diplomas!” he replies sharply totally contrasting with his timid and relaxing look. “I am very desperate here, and very disappointed with the country, its people and life! Since I completed University I was faced with a number of challenges. I did many petty jobs in the real sense of the word; both in salary and in the nature of the job itself. But what can we do? We all suffer do we?”
Mahmoud tried following a training course with a law firm but he lacked a decisive push. He also tried his chance at being self-employed together with his six brothers, but their financial problems brought about their collapse. He doesn’t exclude the idea of living abroad but he is so disillusioned with what he’s lived in his country that he is scared that this curse will follow him everywhere. He has accepted the fact that he will never become a famous lawyer working in the name of the poor and the marginalised.
Gala Amin, a Professor of Economics at the American University of Cairo and author of “Whatever happened to the Egyptians?” a study that lists the changes in Egyptian society during these past 50 years. Galal Amin gathers that: “A lot of changes have occurred in Egypt these past fifteen years. Unemployment has increased noticeably. It’s leaving its impact primarily on the young population and the rate of unemployment is higher amongst University graduates.” Since 1986, he says, the migratory movement has declined and the possibilities of finding a job overseas have reduced. Illegal emigration has grown in scale due to the degrading economic situation.
Unemployment, says Galal Amin, “has devastated young Egyptians. It has destroyed their self-confidence. It is now determining their behaviour in society and the way they envision the world.” According to him, one of the consequences is the worsening phenomenon of sexual harassment of women in public places.
A culture of patching up things
No more time to dream! This young generation has learnt how to hold back their aspirations and have mastered their skills in compromise and looking for alternatives. Mohamed Tariq, 20 years of age, wanted to become an inventor …. But today he is working as an engineer. Leaving Egypt is no longer synonymous to extraordinary scientific discoveries; living overseas is a mere way for him to complete his studies.
Since his early age, Mohamed always dreamt of pursuing his studies in engineering. He chose engineering not only because he liked sciences or had achieved excellent results at school; but he was convinced of becoming a famous inventor, being awarded a patent after another. His ambition started to wane in his first year at University.
“Higher Education is fruitless today”!!! Engineering studies can be resumed as follows: learning everything by heart!! Is this correct?” Mohamed asks, being so irritated he opted for the “Credit hour system”, a modern education system, financially more expensive, based on the student’s free choice of spreading lecture hours as he chooses ; although still having to attend a percentage of the total volume of hours. He was caught by surprise with the frightening number of exams and lack of supervision of his studies. The method used “be your own teacher” is trendy and just as in public education, the need for private lessons is becoming felt.
Under the unbearable pressure of such an education system which leaves no place for creativity, Mohamed had to change his ambitions: “Once I complete my studies I will pursue a Masters degree abroad. It is only overseas that inventors are encouraged. Anybody can be granted a patent for an invention and everyone can easily fulfil their dream! “Great ambitions, that’s completely over. The classical phrase “I will finish my studies, look for a job and get married” has no more sense. Work is not guaranteed and marriage is postponed by at least ten years. This is the general situation in the country. The government is making fun of everything and isn’t concerned about anything. I can’t remember the last time we contributed to produce something entirely from beginning to end. We are happy with what we’re given. Our competencies in all fields are limited to maintenance and repair.
The “Juvenile condition” according to Galal Amin
When we interviewed Galal Amin he reminded us of an explosion of ambitions young Egyptians had and their decline over the years: “What marked the 60’s was the state’s intervention to procure young Egyptians with a good income and an acceptable job more than patriotism. Their aspirations were limited due to the lack of openings to the outside world. In the 70’s thanks to the Infitah (open doors TN) social aspirations grew. Emigration compensated for the lack of job opportunities. Inflation certainly rose but there was still time to make up for it. Meanwhile the 80’s were characterised by an era of social tensions. Real problems started in the second part of this decade. Job opportunities in the Gulf decreased whilst a staggering inflation rate scaled new heights. On the other hand the media continued to encourage consumerism thus increasing the levels of social success.
“Today, says Galal Amin, it is impossible for the young generation not to see the profound abyss found between their life in Egypt and better living conditions abroad. They despair and find solace in planning an illegal escape. Their frustrations grow. The dream of getting married and having a family is long forgone. The latter is resulting in an exploding number of cases of sexual harassment and fixed marriages (signed before witnesses but without the presence of an official servant TN). All the latter leave a negative impact on social values. Consequently the public has no more respect for the government and public authority. The same diploma that used to open wide the doors for employment has no more value. This explains why students no longer respect their professors.”
A cast society even within the Education system
Deteriorating economic conditions and the spike in unemployment have redirected wealthy families to opt for Private University Education. Private University Institutes and Academies in technology have rapidly expanded in Egypt due to the fact that students attending these institutions have better access to the labour market once they graduate. Their expansion was a result of a growing demand for professionals working on government plans and development strategies in the field of NTIC and due to the sudden increase of local and multinational companies.
Private Higher Education Institutions are now numerous in Egypt. Admission fees are exorbitant starting from 10,000 Egyptian liras (1500 Euros); just for the first semester.
There are differing expert opinions on their usefulness. For some they are beneficial, in the sense that they train professionals specifically for NTIC purposes. On the contrary other experts foresee a 50% cut in their activity when exchange and working programmes offered by the government will come to an end. They also maintain that a number of training centres are working illegally or in an informal way.
Paying for tertiary education has not only changed Egyptian youth and their values towards youth but it has also opened up new horizons. Since young Egyptians are proud of their diplomas and of how they master foreign languages, they don’t feel threatened by such an unpredictable labour market. They aspire to become their own managers and launch new private projects avoiding the nightmare of working in administration or the civil service.
Farida Azab (17 years old) is a first year student at the University of Canada. She aspires to become a famous, business woman and she rejects the idea of working under someone’s orders. She has already planned her future. She plans on building her own private company in advertising and public relations. She doesn’t doubt her ability in managing the department of public relations pertaining to her father’s company and hopes that one day she will own one independently. She also maintains that it’s not much about the money but the social status which will provide her with a managerial post.
Ali Mohamed, 21 years of age is a graduate from the Modern Academy in Networks and Communications. Since he finished his studies he had four successful interviews with big private companies. He finally chose the company which offered him the best salary and was close to his domicile. He intends to go to London for a year to pursue an eight month training course in Graphic Arts. The diploma he will obtain will double his salary, mounting it to 5000 liras. He says: “The labour market in Egypt and most Arabic countries ask specifically for foreign diplomas. This is why I am going to London! This training course might be not so useful and will cost me only 20000 but will double my salary.” He assures us: “I’ve never felt threatened by unemployment. There are plenty business men and companies. One has to know how to use his or her brains to find the best job with the best salary!”
The deterioration of public education
Farida and Ali Mohamed are aware of the excessive costs their parents are enduring to invest in their education. This is why they perceive work as a fruitful placement. Mona Hamed, 30 years of age has a complete different experience. After studying at an established and well-known German school, she pursued her studies at the Egyptian University, since she wished to benefit from general education offered to the majority of students in the country. She also completed scientific training at the American University of Cairo, AUC. She worked for research centres and is now working for independent newspapers and she says that in both cases she observed the same thing: the fact that she is an ex-student of the German School and the simple mention of the AUC in her CV has opened wide the door to opportunities but closed the door for her friends with the same diploma acquired from a public faculty.
A recent study, drawn by Nahed Ramzi at the National Centre for Social and Criminology Research, revealed severe segregation in education accessibility among social classes. According to 69% of those constituting the sample; village schools are badly neglected. For 81% schools in lower class neighbourhoods have more than two free lessons a day and students are deprived of many activities.
The study also showed that according to 59% of students and directors, public schools are experiencing a degradation of school services compared to private schools. For 91% teaching a foreign language is impossible and pedagogical methods applied are completely obsolete. 60% of the sample shows that low budgets allocated to the national education are to blame for school discrimination.
Nahed Ramzi does not have a miraculous solution to the lack of well-being among youths. Galal Amin believes that solutions will always be partial and that they will always be of an economical nature. It is mainly the economy which offers the key to solution, he affirms. A different economy which, he hopes is centred on the necessary creation of jobs and that does not fall back anymore, as the government does, attracts foreign investment in the hope of increasing the growth rate.
Translated from French by Emma Navarro
(*) Title of a poem by Egyptian poet Salah Gahnine.