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Egypt held its first ‘national youth conference’ in October 2016 in Sharm El Sheikh, far away from potentially turbulent Cairo, with the presence of 3000 youth and numerous high political and religious officials, including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi himself.
The conference was part of Egypt’s ‘year of the youth’, proclaimed by al-Sisi at the beginning of 2016, with the purpose of engaging youth in public life and empowering them. Back then, Al-Sisi promised EGP 200bn ($11.7bn) in loans dedicated to job opportunities for young people and social housing projects. Thereby committees were to be formed to review and develop the country’s educational curricula. Tangible results of these measures have yet to emerge.
Egypt’s issue with youth engagement could be seen in the parliamentary elections in 2015. Where turnout was generally low (26.5% and 30% in the first and second stages respectively), youth aged between 18 and 30 showed up in even lower numbers (21% and 18%), according to state polling institute Baseera.
A lot has been written about feelings of disenfranchisement in Egypt, stemming for instance from the very high youth unemployment figures: 27% of young people aged 15 to 29 are out of a job, according to the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS).
Another CAPMAS survey from 2013 shows the largest age group of current Egyptian migrants is the age bracket 25-29, which makes up for almost a quarter of all people leaving the country. Improving standards of living is the top reason for migration. The vast majority of migrants leave for the Gulf or Libya, and often return after a few years. About 70% of current migrants send money back to their families in Egypt, which is primary used for daily needs such as food and clothes, schooling and medical bills, the survey further showed.
Advertising director and cartoonist Hamed Ussama,30, acknowledged the challenges youth face in Egypt, naming unemployment and bureaucracy as the most pressing ones. He works in the private sector without a contract or any social benefits and at a low salary, which is barely sufficient for meeting monthly expenses as rent let alone providing for a family, he said. Together with his wife, he started his own comic, ‘Lamis’, but faced a long and painful process through the state’s bureaucracy to register his own business.
A complication for youth is the marriage process in Egypt, Ussama told Fanack in November 2016. According to tradition, the man is to buy an apartment for the couple to live in. Ussama, who married three years ago, could not afford an apartment and was lucky to find a way around the tradition by renting a place. However, for young Egyptian man from more traditional families, this is not an option. It creates scores of youth eager to move on with their lives, but not able to due to economic and social constraints. Ussama often thinks about “taking steps”, by which he means starting a family, but the uncertainty at work, where he can be fired at any time, worries him.
He does not think the youth conference will change anything, as he “didn’t hear any solutions.” “It’s the same old talk we’ve heard all our lives,” he said. “Five years ago I was an optimist, believing you can achieve what you want if you believe in it. But as time goes by, you grow cynical.”
Several political parties, such as Al Dostour, the Socialist People’s Alliance Party and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) boycotted the conference. The ESDP’s youth union stated it had “strong reservations regarding what has been dubbed the ‘year of the youth’, which witnessed the arrest of tens of young people on charges of protesting and expressing their views.”
Besides, an online petition was launched for youth to express their rejection of the conference. The organisers of the petition said that the series of events to address youth issues have not led to any change, which disqualifies the whole process.
In addition, young Egyptians including prominent activists like the novelist and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif, declared their own virtual youth conference on Twitter, using the hashtag #WhereHaveAllTheYoungOnesGone. They voiced criticism of the regime on a number of social and economic issues, including the high number of youth in prison, the ones trying to leave Egypt through irregular migration and the country’s recent sugar shortage. The hashtag #WhyWeShouldHaveAnotherRevolution was also trending.
Political activist Wael Eskandar wrote on Twitter: “With nearly 60 thousand in prison, mostly young people, Sisi’s youth conference is declared farcical”. Soueif posted a series of photos of youth hurt or killed in the past years in the hands of authorities or currently in prison.
On the other hand, more pro-regime parties as the Wafd Party and the Free Egyptians welcomed the conference.
Figures show that less well-off Egyptians turn increasingly to irregular migration. In September 2016, a boat carrying 600 refugees sank off the north coast of Egypt, near Rashid. Among the 42 bodies recovered and the 400 who went missing, the majority were young Egyptians. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 1,815 Egyptians arrived in Italy by sea between January and May 2016, a strong surge from the 238 in the same period the year before. The majority of migrants is below 18.
IOM states the main drive of irregular emigration for Egyptians is lack of job opportunities. In a press release, head of the IOM Egypt office Amr Taha said: “Egypt’s economic growth is insufficient to absorb labour market entrants, in turn resulting in high unemployment prompting youth to find work opportunities abroad. High birth rates, over four in rural areas, means entrance to the job market will continue to further out strip job opportunities for many years to come.” Egypt’s population has increased by one million in six months in 2016, reaching 96 million.
This reality does not seem to have landed in higher government positions. The Minister of Manpower, Mohamed Saafan, responded to the Rashid tragedy by declaring that “Egypt is full of jobs in the private sector and it needs its people to build it rather than migrate.”
Former Cabinet spokesperson Hussam al-Qaweesh also denied that economic circumstances drive people to migrate, citing the amount of money paid to smugglers to make the journey to Europe. During a speech at the conference, President al-Sisi voiced similar sentiments, saying that he would want to improve education if he could, but that Egyptians would not be able to pay for it. He added that the government lacks resources to put education high on the agenda, as it faces more pressing issues such as high unemployment, slums and population growth. His words indicated that improving the education system is not seen as key to solving these issues.
It also reflects the government’s approach the youth conference, which was organised to show that the regime takes youth issues seriously, but failed to address critics with appropriate answers, turning to denial or blame-shifting instead. Until this attitude is modified, a youth conference will not change the feelings of disenfranchisement among young Egyptians.