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.