Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (501)
Where's the work?
In 1932, Al-Ahram reopened the debate about unemployment among Egypt's educated youth. Despite the millions of unemployed in Europe, certain circumstances seemed to aggravate the situation for Egyptians. Articles in the newspaper blamed the monopoly that foreigners had over commercial, economic and industrial life, the shortcomings of the educational system and the allure of a civil service job. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* writes about jobs and job hunters
On 28 January 1932 Al-Ahram revealed one of the uglier sides of the economic straits affecting school graduates. It announced, "On the occasion of the opening of the new fruit and vegetable market, the Commerce and Industry Authority invites applicants to man the scales in the market. The position pays LE4 per month." Some 1,600 people applied for the job and, much to the newspaper's surprise, many of them were graduates of the schools of commerce and agriculture, advanced degree holders from European universities, Al-Azhar and other religious institutions, and former civil servants. "This is not to mention the many graduates from lesser known schools and applicants with recommendations from highly- placed individuals," the article added.
The reporter was even more astounded when he learned that the job these people applied for entailed remaining standing from 4.00am to just after noon and then remaining on call from 2.00pm onwards. This news, he commented, rings alarm bells over the circumstances of our educated youth, unable to find employment in business or the liberal professions that pay LE4 a month.
With this news item, Al-Ahram reopened that perennial Egyptian chapter: unemployment among educated youth. Underscoring the irony of their plight, a student signing himself "an Al-Azhar graduate" wrote to the newspaper. "Even a dog can find a good paying job while the armies of the educated remain unemployed!" The comment referred to a picture, appearing in the previous day's edition, of a ferocious looking dog, haughty, snarling and poised to attack. The dog was none other than the famous canine star Rin Tin Tin who had appeared in some 50 films, some of which were written especially for him, and who sometimes earned up to LE400 in a single week.
In bitterly sarcastic tones, the Al-Azhar graduate continues, "It is truly a marvel that Western education has attained such heights that even a dog can not only learn the arts of drama but excel in these arts to the degree that films are written especially for it. And when the animal appears, this actor of such consummate perfection, audiences cheer, applaud and call out his name, for he can dance to the tunes of an orchestra -- should the script call for dance -- and he can move them to such awe and admiration that they rise to a standing ovation and shout, 'Long live the wonder star!'"
It did not surprise the writer that dog training academies in the West had surpassed the Egyptian school system. What Egypt had were long outmoded "civil servant factories in which students are taught to listen and obey, indeed simply to obey without thinking or even knowing what thinking is. It has been observed that this system of education is designed to produce government employees and, therefore, it raises students on the principles that are required by the post rather than those that serve the welfare of the employee."
Although a student of Al-Azhar, the symbol of a traditional education in Egypt and the Middle East, the graduate had nothing but praise for education in Europe which had long since thrown away those ancient modes of instruction "and replaced them with a system that allows students to grow into useful men, capable of working for themselves and for others and who are not forced to rely on others for the essentials of life". What was distinct in that system was that "it develops the faculties for enquiry and instills a love for work and a propensity towards individual independence."
Of course, the plight of educated youth was part of a much greater and worldwide problem. In a letter to the editor, appearing on the front page of Al-Ahram on 5 September 1932, a man signing himself merely "S" cites an international labour report stating that there were between 20 million and 25 million unemployed in Europe. "If we add to this the family members of the unemployed we can deduce that between 60 million and 70 million people are without a source of income."
Such statistics helped contextualise the problem, perhaps imparting on students the sense that they were not alone. Nevertheless, in the opinion of some, certain circumstances aggravated the situation for Egyptians. According to one Al- Ahram reader, "the monopoly of foreigners over our commercial, economic and industrial life" excluded many qualified Egyptians from jobs. His solution was to curb the influx of foreigners into Egypt. "In this regard it will be following the example set by the governments of Turkey and the US which have closed their doors in the face of immigrants." With regard to university graduates in particular, Murad Kamel, chargé d'affaires in the Egyptian Embassy in Holland, suggested following the example set by Sweden and Romania. In those countries, annual enrollment quotas had been set for each university after which students were streamed into various specialisations.
Like the author of the "Rin Tin Tin letter", most others who contributed to the debate held the shortcomings of the Egyptian educational system responsible for the woes of the country's youth. Abdullah Hussein, a well-known Al-Ahram writer, maintained that the primary flaw in education in Egypt was that it was based on the "Dunlop system". Douglas Dunlop was the British adviser to the Egyptian Ministry of Education who, in the 1890s, had introduced European programmes that many felt were inappropriate to an Egyptian setting. The Egyptian commentator writes: "The graduate of European schools finds in the professional field those liberal institutions in which he can work and he can find another school in which to advance his learning, experience and ideas, thereby acquiring better prospects for increasing his income, his knowledge of life and the wealth that life has to offer."
Others laid the blame on the young who, lured by the glamour of a civil service job, spurned the type of education that would offer them better job prospects. Ahmed Abdel-Halim El-Askari, another staff writer of Al-Ahram, was of this opinion: "A student may be impoverished and from a family steeped in all forms of deprivation and want. Yet, once he dons a suit and knots a tie, he finds it impossible to relinquish this great privilege and engage in a craft or acquire those skills and that technical know-how that may prove more useful to him. How much easier it is for him to beg and plead with parents and guardians, to ingratiate and lower himself before influential people and whatever powers that be in order to be admitted free of charge into one of those schools that teach the theoretical sciences, rather than work with that level of craftsmen, wage earners and others of that class."
Khaldoun, another contributor, disagreed with El- Askari's distinction between theoretical and practical education. The entire educational system was a "disease" that produced social ailments "more dangerous than ignorance with all the flaws it had ever produced". The worst ailment in his opinion was the insidious drive to procure a government job, a spirit that had not only infected those who had received a theoretical education but also graduates of vocational schools. "My purpose in making this observation was to draw attention to the error of the theory that advocates increasing the numbers of vocational schools," he wrote. What was needed was a more comprehensive and forward looking approach. He thus urged the Ministry of Education to form a committee to study "the grave situation that endangers the future of the country and renders education a crime against students". However, it was essential for that committee to bear in mind that "to narrow our vision to only one small part of education, as has occurred, will be of little consequence as long as the very foundations of our educational system are faulty, its rules and principles confused and its curricula the subject of much criticism and protest."
A fourth reader could not have agreed more. The educational system was in complete disarray. "From the very first step we find primary schools, compulsory schools, kuttabs, nursery schools and kindergartens." At a later phase there were five full years of secondary school which only produced "those enormous armies of baccalaureate holders who cram the schools of advanced education which cannot possibly accommodate those numbers". The alternative, in his opinion, was to unify and render compulsory elementary education and to take on another year to that level for essential agricultural theory and technology. Then, successful graduates from the public primary schools would receive funding to attend private polytechnics, of which more should be created."
In the course of the debate, a fact appeared that would strike readers today as curious. Applicants to polytechnics far exceeded applicants to the faculties of the new Egyptian university, opened seven years earlier in 1925. In order to counter the glut, officials in the Ministry of Education suggested "opening the doors to the faculties of letters and commerce to applicants unable to enroll in other higher level institutes". Al-Ahram did not approve. "For those students, that would not be an option but an imperative, compelled as they are by their desire to obtain a higher degree. However, there is no doubt that a number of them are unqualified for the faculties of commerce or letters, which underscores one of the biggest flaws in our system of education." In the newspaper's opinion the ministry had only two alternatives. If it wanted to sustain a respectable level of higher education it could either guarantee places in the various academies and colleges to all students who pass their entrance exams or they could reduce the levels of enrollment. It appears that the majority of opinion favoured the latter option.
Some believed that if the Ministry of Education was going to cut back on student numbers in the higher educational institutions it would have to begin the process at the secondary school level. One reader observed, "We must face the fact that the purpose of that phase is to prepare students for higher education. As long as such institutions have no place for secondary school graduates, it is better for them and for the ministry that they suffice with primary school and then move on to institutes in agriculture and commerce or find a job from which they can earn a living."
Others felt that education authorities had to take the "courageous step" to limit education to the few. Education, writes one, "should not be left open to thousands upon thousands who advance, without thinking, from one level to the next until finally they obtain an advanced degree only to join the ranks of the unemployed whose numbers are multiplying year after year".
Again, many looked to Europe for an answer. One writer observed that in Europe primary school education was compulsory "for all classes of the nation". However, secondary school tuition was so high that "only the wealthy and talented youths supported by donations from the rich or charity foundations" could afford it. It was this small number that "advanced through the subsequent levels of education until they completed university, after which they engage in research or travel, leaving civil service positions to be filled by successful individuals from the poorer classes". In his opinion, such a system offered a practical solution to the problem of unemployment in Egypt. "The policy of the Ministry of Education should focus on facilitating to the best of its ability the education of the poorer classes in primary school and in the commercial, agricultural and industrial training levels. It should raise the tuition for secondary school while guaranteeing free tuition for the gifted poor. This policy will channel the poor and middle classes into various types of practical and technical education, and when they graduate they will not find the doors to employment, however small the salary, too embarrassing to enter. Nor will those with higher education have motive to disdain a living of any means so long as such means are honourable."
The author of this appeal was Abbas Mustafa Ammar who in the 1940s became professor of geography in Fouad I University and went on to become minister of social affairs in 1951 and minister of education in 1954. In the latter capacity Ammar served under the post-revolutionary government which had instituted free education for all Egyptians, rich and poor alike, obviating the possibility of his implementing the ideas he aired 20 years earlier.
But even then, Ammar's proposal met with the disapproval of Al-Ahram, which followed his letter with a lengthy rebuttal. Were his ideas to be implemented, it charged, they would completely distort the function of schooling by transforming it into "a purely pragmatic process that will deprive youth of the relish of knowledge and the spirit of academic research". Far from that bleak prospect, the newspaper continued, "We would like higher education to dedicate itself to expanding the students' cultural horizons and enhancing their thirst for scientific enquiry. We would like to see an end to that situation whereby students' decisions to apply to this or that faculty or academy rest primarily on the salary the government offers."
Another important cause of unemployment among higher education graduates was their "great hostility" towards the liberal occupations, an aversion stemming from the fact that, as one commentator put it, "students learn only how to sit on a chair with a desk in front of them, or a game or coffee table in front of them if they happen to be sitting in a café." His solution would have cast the onus on graduates and come as a welcome relief to the government: a law barring students from employment in civil service jobs for a period of five years after their graduation. "This will give all the opportunity to engage in an independent occupation and, perhaps, after that period is over, they will have lost their taste for knocking on the doors of the ministries in the race after a government job. In addition, the law will make parents think twice before tossing their children into higher level schools."
Others attempted to give closer study to the phenomenon, which they attributed to two primary causes. The first was the complacency instilled by the age-long agrarian life of the country. It was again Abbas Ammar who wrote, "We have never faced in our lives the brutal conditions that compel us to fight nature, venture to rebel and take risks. Working independently is indisputably a form of risk, so why should we blame our youth for their lack of daring and their fear of turning against the past? Why should we rebuke them for clinging to their passion for a government job and the calm assurance it offers when that passion is the product of a crisis generated by the influences of their milieu and the laws of environment?"
Another attribute of Egypt's predominantly agrarian life, according to Ammar, was the love of appearances and show, the opportunities for which came in abundance with a civil service post. "And why should youth not worship these?" he asks. "Why should we blame graduates for their attachment to such things when the rest of our people only acknowledge a person's social status in terms of their rank and salary and when our gauge of status is the civil service salary scale, according to which individuals rise or fall in our esteem?"
Others were not so hasty in attributing the phenomenon to the whims and attitudes of Egyptian youth, whether shaped by an agrarian environment or not. Indeed, in their opinion, it was not that youths were averse to striking out in the domain of the liberal occupations but that the domain itself was the preserve of foreigners. Foreigners came to Egypt "in droves year after year", confident that "the doors of opportunity will open and that wealth will rain on them".
How is it, asks Ammar, that there are hundreds of companies in Egypt, "all exploiting our resources and wealth", yet "an Egyptian is unable to find in them a source of employment commensurate to his status as a citizen and, hence, more deserving of the opportunity to make his mark in the field and rise above others?" True, he continues, the contracts these companies signed with the Egyptian government stipulate that a certain percentage of their employees must be Egyptian. However, the way that this provision is implemented is laughable. "Are not all the janitors, porters and part- time staff all Egyptian? Do not the numbers of these menials more than meet the quotas? Egypt is like a cow which foreign companies are milking for all its worth with little heed to ethical niceties in their dealings."
That situation could not continue, and the only way to overcome it was to compel those companies to adhere not to a simple ratio of Egyptian to foreign employees but rather to ratios of the various positions in the company. "This system will realise a just representation of Egyptians by allowing them to rise above the level of servants, janitors and porters. Certainly the government can negotiate with established companies and banks over this matter. A little shrewdness and subtlety in this will inevitably improve our position."
Ammar's discussion touched on an important issue, which is that Egypt was still in the transitional phase between the craft system and capitalist modes of production. As a result, as one Al-Ahram reader pointed out, most Egyptians in the cities at the time worked in small, generally traditional trades, such as newspaper and book vendors, as herbalists and scented oil sellers, as grocers and butchers, in handicraft, as waiters in popular coffeehouses and restaurants. As domestic servants and in hotels they made up the service staff.
Among the politicians who addressed this issue, Qalini Fahmi, a member of the Senate, devised a plan that would encourage higher level degree holders to engage in modern business and commerce. As starting a business required capital that many graduates would not have access to, Fahmi wrote, "it is only fair and just that the government advance a sum of LE50 with which recipients may put to service, relying upon their own intelligence. Then, as an incentive to continue their work the government can promise additional sums to those who can demonstrate that their investment was successful and that their business is progressing steadily." Fahmi added a word of advice to graduates seeking to strike out on their own, which was to "combine their efforts so that together they can work to their utmost capacity towards the advancement of the business they initiated".
For its part, Al-Ahram suggested some areas of business and commerce where new graduates could make a start. Interestingly, one of these areas was the stock market which "teems with foreigners of all nationalities", but among whom was not a single Egyptian, "even though the business of the stock market revolves around crops, especially cotton and cotton seeds". At the same time, the newspaper cautioned that anyone entering the stock market had to be armed with the knowledge on how prices rise and fall and the exultation and wailing that accompanies profit and loss. Nevertheless, if Egyptians learned the fundamentals of stock brokering, currently monopolised by foreigners, much of the risk could be avoided. The article added that graduates of the school of commerce would probably be the most adept at this trade, "but on the condition that they know French".
Like several of Al-Ahram's readers 70 years ago, we find it difficult to countenance such partial remedies. Then, as today, the problem of unemployment required radical solutions.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.