EGYPT: Policymakers ignore increasingly disaffected youth

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Egyptian youths represent two-thirds of the country’s population and share a sense of detachment from, and lack of trust in, Egypt’s political life. They dream of a decent and stable job, affordable housing and good health services. Unfortunately for many of them, these dreams will never become reality.

Unemployment is the primary issue for Egypt’s young people. Nine out of 10 jobless in Egypt are under age 30, with women disproportionately unemployed. A large mismatch between job opportunities and education provided by schools and universities is mostly responsible.

Even though the young are more educated than other job seekers, most jobs in Egypt are of poor quality, offered as part of the informal sector, and attract less-educated workers. Migration is increasingly seen as the solution to unemployment among the highly educated; those from unprivileged families usually end up with a poor education and bad jobs.

To escape unemployment and bad jobs, most young people are drawn to entrepreneurship. Often, however, they lack sufficient education and training to successfully establish and run their own businesses. Lack of government support, the absence of attention to the needs of young entrepreneurs, limited financial resources, and the shortage or absence of collateral also impede their chances of success.


Not surprisingly, then, most Egyptian youth are disengaged from politics. The 2009 Survey on Young People in Egypt conducted by the Population Council reveals that less than 1 percent of people ages 18-29 belong to a political party and only 16% of eligible youths voted in the last elections. While political youth movements advocating reform, such as the April 6 Movement, show how this demographic can use peaceful means to effect change and influence government politics, the state has remained largely unresponsive to their needs.

To fully engage Egyptian youths and encourage them to be productive members of a growing economy and polity, the government must place a high priority on their educational and socio-economic needs. This should include clear policy interventions in the education, labor and credit markets.

First, policymakers must ensure that the skills taught in classrooms more closely align with the needs of the labor and business markets. They should focus on encouraging creativity, critical thinking and communication skills, as well as spurring entrepreneurship and autonomy in students.

Second, despite a significant improvement in female education, women face many restrictions in society overall. The authorities should open up economic and political opportunities for young women, specifically offering better access to education and health in rural areas, as well as greater political empowerment and participation in the economy.

Third, Egypt must build on reforms to encourage entrepreneurship — such as reducing the minimum capital requirement and easing registration for new businesses — by further streamlining procedures and regulations and facilitating access to finance.

Fourth, political leaders should lower the age thresholds for elected office — 35 years for the Shura council (upper house of parliament) and 30 years for the People’s Assembly — to encourage youths to seek office and vote in elections.

Without these steps, Egypt faces the possibility that its forgotten youth majority may continue to feel detached from public affairs, or worse, be attracted by extremist groups eager to take advantage of their sense of despair.

-- Lahcen Achy in Beirut