Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – It would have been impossible for Mahmoud Abdullah Ali, Sherif Abdulaziz and Omar al Helew to imagine that they would be spending most of their time at the youth centre in Hadayek al Quba district near Cairo’s city center. They could not have possibly imagined that they would be sitting around at home without a job to go to after all the time and money spent on education and after attaining top university degrees in commerce, the education sector and social services.
Today, the youth centre has become a refuge for these young men where they hide away from their families so that they don’t have to confront the bitter reality: that they are a burden to their parents. They feel ashamed of themselves and avoid their families during working hours and only return home at night. They spend their days scrimping the little money they have to buy major newspapers that feature job vacancies, in addition to sharing the costs of making phone calls and other required expenses only to fail time and again.
Mahmoud, 28 years old, a Bachelor of Science degree holder who graduated from Ain Shams University in 2002 said, “I get a few pounds from my mother to buy tea and a local newspaper to look for work but my efforts fail to a large extent. Sometimes it’s because of the nature of the work, such as the position of salesman where the job requires one to go around cafes and gatherings to try and sell goods or unacceptable jobs, such as standing around in petrol stations to present ‘time share’ schemes to customers.”
He stopped talking and said that he no longer wanted to talk to Asharq Al-Awsat then contemptuously exclaimed, “My father doesn’t even know about the few pounds that I get from my mother, not because he would be against it but because I made her promise not to tell him because I feel ashamed.”
“Would you be able to deal with this situation?” He asked. I stop him as he turns to leave and ask, “But why don’t you work as a salesman, where is the shame in that?” It was as though he knew I was going to ask that question and he answered, “There’s no shame in it but I used to make the rounds throughout the day but no one would buy a thing. A sales rep’s work depends on his ability to sell and cafes and petrol stations are not good places to sell. The customers we encounter there treat us as though we’re con artists that want to sell them bad goods.”
Sherif is a social services degree holder and Omar has a law degree and although both affirm Mahmoud’s words, they are less bitter than he is. “This is our reality,” said Sherif, “we don’t want our parents to feel like all their efforts were in vain or at least to be able to lighten their load and share the responsibility. We feel frustrated and our spirit is broken and there is no way out except through work and yet there are no job opportunities and our experience mostly mirrors Mahmoud’s.”
Mohammed (chemistry degree), Anwar (Bachelor of Arts) and Asmaa (commerce degree) had better luck than the aforementioned youth. Although they too were stuck in the seemingly endless cycle of unemployment; they had a plan, or what they refer to as a “kamikaze move”. They went to the bank with their parents to request a loan to start their project, they asked for 5,000 Egyptian Pounds (LE) each so that they could procure the lump sum of LE 15,000 to open up a small business. Their idea was to make sandwiches and sell them on a mobile cart at a street corner in the Hadayek al Quba district. Mohammed and Anwar prepare the sandwiches quickly and efficiently and hand them to customers while Asmaa deals with the sales transactions and is in charge of ordering the supplies from the bakery and the shops etc. And such is the fate of three university graduates in Egypt; it is unemployment at its worst and they are battling it.
Mohammed added, “The tragic thing is that my father earns an average income and yet he was compelled to sign guarantees at the bank against his monthly salary to ensure that I could secure the loan and the same applies to my friends.”
Anwar was the most affected by this, he said, “I couldn’t ask my father for spending money after the situation got to the point where I had no choice but to stay at home. My father has spent a considerable amount of money on my education and I hoped that I could one day be able to share the family expenses with him but that was impossible. I used to wander the streets sometimes in search of a job and other times aimlessly. It was entirely unacceptable… My siblings are still young and they need every penny of my father’s money. I used to feel like I would die if I didn’t get a job but then you don’t die but you don’t get a job either. It is a very tough place to be in, living without work. A coincidental meeting with my neighbor Asmaa and my childhood friend Mohammed changed all that; we went to a nearby café and began to talk. We were all suffering from the same thing and wasting precious time looking for work so we began to brainstorm and bounce ideas around.”
“As we were sitting in a café near Ain Shams University from which we had recently graduated,” he continued, “we came up with the idea of selling sandwiches and forgetting what we had studied. We need to live, you know… So we went to the bank for a loan and were surprised to learn that we could only get 2,000 and only upon the condition that our fathers’ salaries are transferred to the bank as a guarantee for the loan; however, after many attempts, pleas and “wastas” (mediation by a third party, a practice used in some transactions in many Middle Eastern societies), we were able to secure LE 5,000 each, or more accurately, for each of our fathers and thus we started the small project that you see. We are surrounded by three schools and some offices so that brings in a steady flow of customers. There is a noticeable decrease in customers over the summer months so we count on the youth that go out at night and sometimes stop by for a late-night snack.”
How many in Egypt and around the Arab world share the plight of Mohammed, Anwar and Asmaa? In its recently published report, the Arab Labor Organization (ALO) rates unemployment in the Arab world as the worst worldwide. According to the report the general rate of unemployment in Arab countries exceeds 14 percent, which means that the Arab region has more than 17 million unemployed.
Entitled “Employment and Unemployment in the Arab States: Towards Effective Policies and Mechanisms”, the report indicated that unemployment among young Arabs was estimated at 25 percent most of whom were educated while those entering the job market were estimated to be approximately 4 million. The report also found that unemployment rates were as high as 66 percent in some Arab states.
This puts great pressure on the Arab labor market and the situation necessitates the creation of 2.5 million new jobs annually. Moreover, the annual report released by the Arab Labor Organization stressed that the volume of the Arab labor force this year reached 86.5 million and the number will reach 123 million by 2010 if no action is taken.
The report also indicated that governments are the main recruiters of the labor force in Arab states. Data findings among seven Arab states; Algeria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan indicated that Jordan had recorded the highest level of government recruitment while Morocco came in last with 18 percent.
Unemployment rates varied with only 1.7 percent in Kuwait but with a staggering 50 percent in Djibouti. Meanwhile, the Sultanate of Oman had an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent; Libya 10 percent; Egypt 10.7 percent; 14.2 percent in Tunisia and 29 percent in Iraq. It was also revealed that unemployment rates had reached alarming levels in the West Bank and Gaza (estimated at 47 percent during the Israeli blockade).
According to the report, the reasons behind the rise in unemployment is attributed to the failure of development, neglect of critical social aspects, poor economic performance (as indicated through inadequate growth averages), the inefficacy of education and its failure to meet the requirements of the job market, in addition to the failure to create attractive investment climates and the absence of laws to boost investment, among other reasons.
Prominent Egyptian economist and the author of four UN Development Program reports on human development in the Arab world Dr. Nader Fergani confirms that Arab economies are incapable of dealing with their societies’ mechanisms to provide employment opportunities – even if only fractionally – since most of these societies depend on service projects and thus collect the proceeds as opposed to boosting production. He added that productive manpower is essential, in addition to marketing through distributers and traders who can then employ a third type of workforce. This is a full work cycle, he said, every round depends upon a workforce as opposed to service economies that are based upon the consumption of the products of others, i.e. by selling their products through a limited number of workers.
Economic expert Dr. Mekari Sorour warns about the gravity of the rise in unemployment rates; if it were to exceed the limits of economies and extend into the social and security realms, and therefore called for linking politics with education and training, in addition to fulfilling the job markets’ needs around the Arab world. He also stressed the importance of reconsidering admission levels and requirements in universities and educational institutions and schools so as to correct and re-channel the flow of students into the job market.
Despite the discrepancies in opinion, all experts and specialists in the field agree on the importance of developing capabilities and improving the standard of qualifications, reconsidering and overhauling education curriculums and creating linking channels with the job market, add to that the crucial need for serious and efficient planning, expansion in development training programs and providing facilitations for small projects and start-ups whilst supporting social security institutions so that they may more readily absorb the surplus labor force that will result following the restructuring.
This has been successfully implemented in countries worldwide and until it can be applied to the Arab world, millions of Arab youth – and therefore Arab societies – will continue to pay the price.