Egypt’s disillusioned youth tempted by migration abroad
CAIRO - With the fifth annual Youth Forum taking place in Cairo, there has been a large spotlight on the youth emigrating from Arab countries to seek work and other opportunities abroad.
Speaking on the final day of the forum, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi highlighted education reforms made by his government but acknowledged that these should have been made earlier. “The current education [system] is not helping prepare a workforce suitable for the demands of the labour market,” he said.
With overpopulation and lack of opportunity major hurdles, many Egyptian youth are looking to migrate. When the US Embassy in Cairo started accepting applications as part of the Diversity Immigrant Visa Programme, Hatem Nabil, a doctor, was among the first to submit his application.
Egypt has a young population, with about two-thirds of its people under the age of 30 and a quarter of them between the ages of 18 and 29 unemployed.
In 2017, about 800,000 Egyptians, most Nabil’s age and younger, submitted applications to Western embassies in Egypt. Only 3,500 of them were approved by the programme that makes 50,000 immigrant visas available worldwide every year. Nabil’s was not among them.
“I would have wished to be accepted,” Nabil, 35, said. “I had hoped I would be able to escape.”
This was not the first time Nabil, who works as part of the medical emergency team of a state-owned bank in Cairo, sought to emigrate. He has applied for higher-paying jobs in Arab Gulf hospitals, as well as sought immigration visas to Europe. However, none of his attempts have been successful.
Many other highly educated Egyptians have the same thing in mind. Nabil said he had met Egyptian doctors, engineers, teachers, accountants and journalists competing to be accepted in the Diversity Immigrant Visa Programme.
The desire to emigrate is high among Egypt’s youth, particularly those with university degrees. However, many also complain about the departure of Egypt’s best and brightest from the country.
“More important than thinking of the consequences of the escape of these highly educated people is to know the reasons why these people are leaving their country,” said Mohamed al-Saadani, a political science professor at Alexandria University. “Most of those who leave or want to leave are after high-paying jobs, better living conditions and a better future for their children — things they will not achieve by staying.”
The issue goes beyond Egypt and encompasses the entire Arab world. A recent Gallup survey found that close to half (46%) of respondents in North African countries, including Egypt, aged 15-29 in 2017 expressed a desire to emigrate, a 6% increase on the previous year.
It is not just poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunities that are the problems. Many Egyptians are pointing to stagnant political conditions as a source of their disillusionment.
Soon after the 2011 uprising that ended the rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a national poll showed a marked decline in the number of youngsters who wanted to leave their country. The general feeling among the nation’s youth at the time was of hope and empowerment.
Seven years later, however, this national zest is nowhere to be found. According to the Arab Youth Survey 2018, 52% of Egypt’s youth now view the “Arab Spring” negatively.
One speaker at Egypt’s Youth Forum, which was enacted by Sisi to listen to the voices of Egypt’s youth, complained that youth were largely excluded from the country’s political scene.
“The political parties involve youth only when there are elections,” the speaker said on May 16. “Other than this, youth are usually forgotten.”
Sisi responded by calling on the leaders of Egypt’s more than 100 political parties, many of whom were attending the forum, to provide a means to empower Egypt’s youth within their parties.
“You cannot ask me to give the chance for youth, while you do not do this in your parties,” Sisi said.
The exclusion of the youth from politics is endemic across the Middle East.
Jordanian economist Hosam Ayesh called for more to be done to keep Arab talent at home, where it is most needed.
“Arab governments cannot spend these huge amounts of money on the education of the new generations and then allow the most skilful and educated of these generations to leave for other countries,” Ayesh said. “This emigration costs Arab economies huge amounts of money.”
However, for those like Nabil, waiting for Arab governments to find solutions is not an option. For them and their families, the clock is ticking.
When Nabil graduated from the College of Medicine a few years ago, he was stationed at a rural clinic by the Egyptian Health Ministry. He received a monthly salary of $28.
He would never have managed to buy a flat and get married but for support from his mother. Now, he earns $282 every month in the private sector but this is still not enough to put food on the table for his two children or pay for their education.
“I cannot stay,” Nabil said. “If I wait for things to get better here, I will be waiting for too long.”