The danger of unfulfilled aspirations

When I was just out of University I spent the lion’s share of my time for a couple of years in the Middle East. For half of that time I was in Egypt, a country that I now have a complex love hate relationship with. I have been there so many times for so many reasons and when Dahab was bombed in 2006 I made sure that I holidayed there once again to make my small individual contribution to supporting the tourist industry that the bombers were attempting to destroy.

I love the people of Egypt; they have just the best sense of humour and are incredibly engaging company but it is a complex country and for all the investment into holiday resorts like Dahab and Sharm el Sheik I don’t see much improvement over the 14 years I’ve been visiting the country in the quality of life and the future for Egyptians.

The view from the red sea may be rosy but it is a country where the people live without meaningful political freedoms and plenty of political cynicism, where a command economy keeps people at University studying subjects allotted to them by the state and where the waiting list for a graduate job is six years; something that this article I found in the New York Times yesterday, confirmed is still the case today, no matter that Egypt receives £billions of aid from both America and the European Union.

What does this mean in practice? Well, I had a friend in the early nineties who had a diploma (they would call it a degree in Egypt but it isn’t recognised as such in the UK, by UK Universities) in Agricultural Engineering. But there weren’t any jobs in Agricultural Engineering, so he went and did another years study so that he could become a teacher and then when he applied they just said ‘well that’s very good, we’ll put you on the waiting list we’ll be in touch in about 6 years’. So, he came down to Dahab to work in one of the tourist bazaars there. And now, I find that my friends’ experiences are still being played out across Egypt:

“Education experts say that while Egypt has lifted many citizens out of illiteracy, its education system does not prepare young people for work in the modern world. Nor, according to a recent Population Council report issued in Cairo, does its economy provide enough well-paying jobs to allow many young people to afford marriage.

Egypt’s education system was originally devised to produce government workers under a compact with society forged in the heady early days of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s administration in the late 1950s and ’60s.

Every graduate was guaranteed a government job, and peasant families for the first time were offered the prospect of social mobility through education. Now children of illiterate peasant farmers have degrees in engineering, law or business. The dream of mobility survives, but there are not enough government jobs for the floods of graduates. And many are not qualified for the private sector jobs that do exist, government and business officials said, because of their poor schooling. Business students often never touch a computer, for example”.

And the aid money from the European Union? Well, don’t worry too much because the road that links Dahab with Sharm el Sheik, the one where you will pass maybe 10 cars in an hour’s journey is having an extra lane each way built! I swear I cannot work out what the purpose of building this extra lane is or what an utter waste of money it is; I tell you, it makes Transport for London look positively sensible!

The article makes the connection between poverty, the inability for the educated middle classes to find work, let alone the illiterate to find work, to be able to marry and the retreat of the young into conservative religion that is being made as a result. And whilst I don’t find the way Galal Amin frames it (not being one to like the idea of ever accepting my ‘lot’) particularly palatable, unfulfilled expectations should be a cause for alarm:

“But more widespread access to education has raised expectations. “Life was much more bearable for the poor when they did accept their social status,” said Galal Amin, an economist and the author of “Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?” “But it is unimaginable when you have an education, to have this thought accepted. Frustration opens the door to religiosity.”

If an individual woman wants to wear the hijab then it is not my place to suggest she can’t but it saddens me dreadfully to see the massive increase in the number of women in Egypt wearing a head scarf. When I was there in the nineties in the towns women covering their hair were in the minority; now, you can more or less assume that if you see a woman’s hair it is because she is a coptic Christian. That the country is becoming more conservative and more religious cannot be in doubt.

The frustration has been there for the last 14 years at least. For me, in my early twenties, the realisation that my Egyptians friends would never be able to come and see me in my home was a disappointment. Worse for them was the knowledge they were unlikely to be able to ever leave Egypt, because even if they could save up the money for the flights they would be highly unlikely to get a tourist visa. Just imagining not being able to get on a place to travel to more or less any country of my choosing brings me out in hives! For them, it was and still is a reality and the implications of that will ripple out to all of us.

“It brings us closer to God, in a sense,” Mr. Faragallah said, speaking of the despair he felt during the years he searched for work. “But sometimes, I can see how it does not make you closer to God, but pushes you toward terrorism. Practically, it killed my ambition. I can’t think of a future.”

His parents built him an apartment so that he would not have to wait to marry. The apartment has been empty for years, though now, at 28 and with his new job, he said he hoped he could support a wife.

“I tell them, my friends still in university, not to dream too much,” Mr. Faragallah said one day while sitting on the balcony of the empty apartment he hopes to one day share with a family”.


peter said...
28 Apr 2008, 06:25:00

Hi Nice Blog. In Egypt also boasts a broad multi-cultural community including Aboriginal and Torres Strait, descendants with cultures spanning 40,000 years. So next I will be one visitor of Queensland .any one let me know about Egypt visa.

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