She is the “cart girl” – the name given to her by Egypt’s media. She is a girl from Alexandria seen in a photograph crossing a road and pulling a heavy cart loaded with goods behind her, even as a group of young men appear elsewhere in the same photograph lounging in a café doing nothing.
The picture went viral on Facebook, with many social media activists sympathising with the girl. Some described her as a girl who was worth 100 men, while others said she was a role model that should be followed for endurance and perseverance. The photograph was widely seen as teaching young people a lesson about the importance of striving to earn a living and self-reliance.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi invited the girl to the presidential palace in Cairo, meeting with her on13 November. He said she was an example for the young people of Egypt and to all Egyptians in upholding the values of work and patience.
Unemployment is one of the difficulties that confront Egyptian young people today. Delays in getting a job can lead to a lack of income, an inability to find the resources necessary to get married, and a failure to find self-fulfilment, all of which can generate a feeling of frustration and lack of belonging and may also create a sense of social and political alienation.
Such things can lead some young people towards rebellion or to a desire to go abroad in order to escape unemployment, poverty and the loss of dreams for the future. Unlike in Egypt where the future for some young people appears bleak, life abroad may appear to offer work opportunities, a secure career path and better living conditions.
According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), Egypt’s estimated unemployment rate in 2015 was 26.1 per cent for young people aged 15 to 29. In its annual Labour Force Research Bulletin published in June 2016, CAPMAS said that “by looking at the overall picture of the unemployment rate, it can be seen that it reached about nine per cent in 2010, the year directly before the 25 January Revolution.”
“However, in the aftermath of the revolution and in the period that followed, the political instability and contraction of many economic activities meant that unemployment rates rose over the three years from 2011 to 2013 to an average of 12.6 per cent. As stability returned after the restructuring of the institutions of the state, unemployment started to decline slightly in 2014 and continued to do so in 2015,” the Bulletin said.
Unemployment may force some young people to leave their country and seek better opportunities abroad. Some migrants may find legitimate opportunities, while others may risk their lives through illegal migration in the search of work abroad. One such tragic incident took place off Borg Rashid on 21 September, when a boat loaded with illegal migrants went down due to overloading, leading to the deaths of 300 people.
Unemployment may also drive some young people to end their lives. The case of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who committed suicide by setting himself on fire in December 2010 sparking the Arab Spring Revolutions, is well-known, and similar cases have begun to appear in Egypt. One young man attempted to burn himself to death on 15 October in the Sidi Gaber area of Alexandria, for example, apparently in protest against harsh living conditions. Another tried to set fire to himself in front of Cairo University, apparently in protest at being fired from work.
Some Facebook activists have launched an event called “Collective Suicide Every Week,” in which they specified 11 November as the starting day of the event. Even though it was predominantly satirical, and the young people concerned had no intention of in fact committing suicide, the existence of the event shows people’s anger at the deterioration of living standards in Egypt and the predominance of depression among many young people.
“Remember the crises, the high cost of living, the lack of money, the collapse of the pound, the price of petrol, and let these things motivate you,” the Facebook activists wrote. “Remember harassment, depression and repression. Remember you are in Egypt.”
It is a common saying in Egypt that “no one works in his field of specialisation,” meaning that career-related jobs are limited, so people are compelled to take any available job on the grounds that any job is better than no job or that the pressure of life will force people to give up their specialisation in order to get a job that has a good monthly income.
YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT: “The lack of new projects, the failure of old projects, an inadequate picture of economic activity and the mismatch of educational outputs with labour market needs are all factors leading to the recession in economic activity,” said Kamal Al-Qazzaz, a professor of economics at Cairo University, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
The number of existing jobs has been reduced, he said, and there was little capacity for new ones, leading to an increase in the unemployment rate.
Many young people blame their unemployment on the lack of vacancies. In a survey done by the Sahwa Project, a research initiative sponsored by AUC in June 2016, it was found that the most frequent answer given by both young men and young women to the question of why they were unemployed was the “lack of jobs” and blockages in the job market. The results were published in the project’s policy paper “A Ticking Bomb: Egypt’s Youth Unemployment.”
But there may also be a lack of experienced and skilled applicants. Mohamed Yasser, a career coach and administrator of the Facebook page “Career Standout”, said in an interview that “many university graduates are not qualified to get jobs. They may have a lack of knowledge about labour market requirements, limited financial capabilities, or have lost hope of finding an equal-opportunity job. There may also be a feeling of injustice generated from the idea that a good job can only be found through connections.”
“But all this is due to a lack of awareness about market mechanisms. In fact, nepotism plays a very small role in hiring decisions. It is not possible for a company owner to hire employees through favouritism, because the company would be more vulnerable to risks if he did. Such false beliefs nevertheless prevent many young people from trying to qualify themselves for the labour market,” Yasser said.
Dina Al-Dakrouri, a freelance recruiter and administrator of the Facebook page “Ask D,” told the Weekly that “some young people are unemployed because of their negativity. They don’t take the first and most essential step in getting a job, which is sending out applications. A person like this thinks he can’t compete with other applicants who are more qualified and have lots of previous experience. So he keeps in mind that if the company is seeking to hire only one person, it is not possible for him to be that person.”
“He may also think that his application will not be considered if he does not refer to a reference in the company concerned,” she said.
Moreover, there is a gap between education and the labour market in Egypt. The survey done by the Sahwa Project showed that the problem of youth unemployment also arises from the transition from school to work. The education received may not prepare students for the job market, and colleges and universities may not support undergraduates with practical training programmes that could provide them with the necessary knowledge and skills for the job market. The survey indicated that “a college degree in itself is not enough to get a job.”
Heidi Ali, an economics professor at Cairo University, said in an interview that “one of the main problems contributing to youth unemployment in Egypt is the mismatch between the supply of labour and the demands of the labour market. There is a gap between what the market needs and what young people can provide, given the education they have received. That’s why employers claim that they have a lot of vacancies, and at the same time young people complain about being unemployed.”
The CAPMAS Bulletin shows that young people with higher levels of education are more exposed to unemployment risks than those who can only read and write. “Turning to the rates of unemployment according to educational status and gender, the statistics show that the most prominent reduction achieved in unemployment rates in 2015 compared with 2014 was the rate of unemployment for the illiterate, which fell from 5.8 per cent in 2014 to about 3.1 per cent in 2015, as well as the unemployment rate for those who can read and write and the holders of literacy certificates, which fell from 8.7 per cent in 2014 to around 5.8 per cent in 2015,” it said.
“The unemployment rate for those with less than middle level education fell from 11.6 per cent in 2014 to about 8.9 per cent in 2015,” the Bulletin added, saying that “the unemployment rate for the holders of middle level education degrees also dropped from about 30.9 per cent in 2014 to about 29.3 per cent in 2015.”
“Yet, the unemployment rate for the holders of university degrees increased from about 20.0 per cent in 2014 to about 21.4 per cent in 2015,” it said.
According to a middle-level manager at a technology company who asked to have his name withheld, “I was studying engineering and was supposed to graduate in 2010, but I didn’t finish my studies as I wanted to get practical experience and learn what would help me with my future career. Now I have found that a degree is not necessary in my job, and the company where I work doesn’t select its employees based on their degrees. Instead, it hires the most skilled applicants,” he said.
Finally, too high expectations may play a role. Nihad Ragab, a human development expert and empowerment trainer, said that “the over-expectations of some young people of the market place may make them refuse jobs and prefer to wait for better opportunities. They are not willing to start from scratch and climb the career ladder step by step until they reach their dream jobs. However, the opportunities that some young people may aspire to may be indefinitely delayed, making them achieve nothing,” she said.
Al-Dakrouri also said that “some young people are not flexible enough to start from the bottom. They are not fully aware of the relevant career path and career ladder, in which fresh graduates without experience usually start with entry level jobs.”
SOLUTIONS: Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said at a recent economic conference sponsored by the media organisation Akhbar Al-Youm that Egypt’s “aggregate macroeconomic indicators have improved. The IMF has approved a $12 billion loan to finance Egypt’s economic and social reform programme, and there has been a change in the outlook given by the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s of Egyptian sovereign debt from negative to stable. In the near future other agencies should also improve Egypt’s credit rating.”
The Ministry of Planning and Administrative reform has also released its “Follow-up Report on Economic and Social Performance 2015-2016,” in which it says that the government’s reform programme aims at reducing the unemployment rate to 11.9 per cent during fiscal year 2016-2017 and 10.9 per cent in 2017-2018.
One way in which this can be done is by increasing investment, Ali said. “Solutions to the problem can be summarised in two main ways, first by increasing employment opportunities in general and second by improving the skills and experience of young people. The first cannot be achieved without increasing the level of investment, notably by paying special attention to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The second will help reduce the mismatch between education and the labour market, with more focus on vocational education and training as well as voluntary work and student activities,” she said.
For Al-Qazzaz, “in order to solve the problem of unemployment, the investment laws have to be reformed so that local, Arab and foreign investors will better know their rights. The Supreme Council for Investment has issued 17 important decisions to boost investment, all of which are good and promising steps. It is also expected to finalise the draft of the new investment law before the end of November, all of this giving investors better knowledge about the capabilities of labour, production capacities, working conditions, salaries and insurance in Egypt.”
“Improving the investment climate would lead to an expansion in investment and a rise in the number of private companies, all leading to an increase in the supply of jobs,” commented Ragab.
There is also a need to keep a close eye on the labour market. “University students who follow the labour market are more likely to be aware of market needs. They should spend their years at university in preparation for the labour market by working on themselves, improving their knowledge and gaining new skills as the market demands. By the time they graduate, their qualifications will then be more likely to match the requirements of the labour market, and it will be easier for them to get hired,” Al-Dakrouri said.
Role models are also important. “There should be an effort to present real models of Egyptian young people who have been able to achieve success in their lives, as well as an explanation of the steps they have followed. Other young people can benefit from their experience and aspire to achieve similar success,” Ragab said.
Finally, there should be a greater emphasis placed on achieving goals no matter what the circumstances are. “At the time when my brother and I were enrolled at the Faculty of Medicine, our modest house was filled with happiness, but there was also anxiety about the future. Our father’s income couldn’t meet our expenses, and we knew that we were not our parents’ only children, so we worked in order to cover our expenses,” remembers Ali, today a Cairo paediatrician.
“I started working in a store next to our home from 6pm till 6am. I used to come back from the university at 4pm and then head off to work in the evening. After that I returned home in a hurry to shower and change my clothes to get ready to go to the university. My brother got a night shift job at a food factory.”
“I stuck to this routine for seven years. I didn’t get more than three or four hours of sleep per day, nor was I able to study except at the store when the number of customers started to decline close to dawn. There was no time for social life or to spend time with the family.”
“But after graduation, we had saved enough money to open a joint clinic. After another five years of hard work, we became the owners of a medical centre,” Ali said. “It was all really worth it.”
The writer is a freelance journalist.