CAIRO — On a warm spring day in late March this year, a now rare site gripped the upper reaches of Cairo’s Kasr al-Aini Boulevard leading to Tahrir Square. Around 100 protestors waving banners and shouting against government inaction, gathered outside the entrance to the parliament building chanting demands.
The sun glinted off the gates snaking to the legislature as the shouts echoed over the roaring traffic.
Around the corner in a nearby street, two neat rows of officers from Egypt’s Central Security Forces stood poised, awaiting instructions behind black masks covering their faces. The protestors waved their placards, knowing that they were likely to be beaten and chased by police with batons at any moment.
The protest was filled with master’s degree students demanding jobs that they say the Egyptian government promised them, a vow dating back to the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950’s.
Despite contravening a now infamous 2013 law that effectively bans street protest in Egypt, such protests do continue. Almost all have been met with force, including a protest in late 2015 that briefly shut down Tahrir Square in a cloud of tear gas.
“It’s my right to call for a job, and yet they arrest me,” said Mahmoud Abu Zeid, a 25-year-old law graduate from Tanta University in Gharbia governorate in the middle of the Nile Delta. Abu Zeid was a straight talker, relaxed in a blue shirt from which hang folded sunglasses, his gelled hair shining in the gentle morning sun of a Cairo spring.
Although he remains the organizer, Abu Zeid stopped attending the protests after he was arrested in November and held for four days, an experience he describes as “humiliating.” He is one of 2,700 master’s graduates who have spent more than a year demanding what they see as their rights to the promised jobs.
Though relatively small in number, the master’s students represent the nexus of problems currently gripping the Middle East’s most populous nation. A poor education system coupled with joblessness, corruption, a bloated civil service and a rapidly worsening economy mean that the prospects for young graduates are dim.
Three years ago this coming weekend, the Egyptian military—with massive popular backing—overthrew the elected but inept Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi, who has since been condemned to death.
For a brief moment, some of the young Egyptians who had risen up against the decrepit dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 only to see their dreams of freedom and modernity snatched away by Morsi and his cronies thought their dreams were being restored. But as now-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rode to an eventual election win on a wave of pomp and circumstance, the rights and freedoms that they had fought for crumbled around them.
But while the facts on the ground worsen, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decreed 2016 the “year of the youth,” promising financial packages and educational opportunities for the young at a speech in January before joking, “You don’t have any excuse now.”
Sisi is perhaps right to be so concerned about the needs of his country’s youth. He doesn’t want to see a replay of the uprising that brought down Mubarak. Yet Egyptians under 30 have never been more unhappy.
Abu Zeid and his 31-year-old colleague and fellow protestor Shaimaa Metwaly said they wanted to believe Sisi’s promises.
The president co-opted the youth-oriented language of the 2011 protests when he came to power in 2013, promising that his rule would be all about the young.
Both Abu Zeid and Metwaly say emphatically that they wanted to work in the public sector out of a sense of duty. “The private sector prioritizes the sons of business people, its main purpose is profit,” explains Abu Zeid. “We got master’s degrees so we could actually benefit the country.”
Metwaly, a 31-year-old bioscience graduate of Cairo University who had carefully coordinated her lilac hijab with her shirt and bag on the day we met, explained that, “Each year, a certain number of graduates are given jobs—except us.”
Of the thousands of students across Egypt who graduated in 2015, these 2,700 students were left out. “The government said that there were too many employees in the public sector,” she explained. “They said this one day, and then the next they started hiring other graduates but not us. They announce daily that there are vacancies in the public sector, but we’re never chosen.”
Direct requests to the Egyptian government, including to the office of the president himself, have proven unsuccessful.
The students’ expectations for employment are ill fated, at a moment when the Egyptian government is striving to trim down its labyrinthine civil service, the country’s largest employer and estimated by some to be the single largest employer in the Middle East.
The group began organizing protests in the summer of 2015, initially with permission from Egypt’s interior ministry, which swiftly stopped issuing permits once the numbers grew too large. Abu Zeid estimates that the students have protested at least 45 times since, including at least five incidents of mass beatings by the police force in an attempt to suppress the protests, with some protestors arrested more than seven times.
“They’re trying to scare us with security,” he adds. “We have nothing apart from our degree certificates. There’s no one in the government to defend us.”
Such thoughts were on Abu Zeid’s mind during the three days of his arrest, where he says he was charged with “inciting protests against the regime, and trying to undermine public institutions.”
Abu Zeid has since struggled to deal with pressure from his parents to get married—itself a task that in Egypt requires the young suitor to be gainfully employed.
He carries the responsibility of his family on his shoulders: his father, a farmer, and his mother are both only semi-literate, and pushed for their son’s education.
“My parents wanted to be proud of me and to educate me,” he explained. For now, he’s marooned at home in Kafr Sheikh, with the pull of a job abroad growing increasingly tempting. “If I find one, I’ll never come back,” he said.
Efforts to reform the civil service with the aim of making it competitive sparked limited protests in the summer of 2015, but swiftly were moved to a part of Cairo at least an hour from the city center.
Both the civil servants and the students have accused the government of massive corruption in the state employment sector, hardly a baseless accusation in a country ranked 88 out of 168 countries in terms of corruption in the public sector by Transparency International. The government’s top auditor, Hisham Geneina, who reported that the Egyptian government lost an estimated $76 billion between 2012 and 2015 due to corruption, was fired and is now on trial for “spreading false news.”
Within the Egyptian press, discussions of corruption and the ever-sprawling civil service lead inevitably back to questions about how to improve the country’s poor education system.
Egypt’s universities often are criticized for turning out graduates seeking jobs they are simply unqualified to do, but have spent years training for. This in turn leads to questions of nepotism, a problem ingrained in the minds of middle class graduates like Abu Zeid and Metwaly, who long for the pensions and stability of the public sector as the Egyptian economy slowly crumbles around them.
But even if the master’s students find the jobs, marriages and houses they long for, their buying power is worsening by the day.
“The cost of everything has gone up substantially—cars, computers, and a lot of imported goods,” explains Timothy E. Kaldas of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Kaldas says that government efforts to strengthen Egypt’s trade deficit by ambitiously cutting imports by 25 percent before the end of the year are intended to spur domestic production, but, “It’s impossible to do that in the time they’ve set,” he said. “What that means is they want to cut consumption—which means cutting demand in the marketplace, cutting production—which cuts jobs.”
The loss of jobs in factories and malls across the country, resulting directly from the government efforts to cut imports, have also hit the private sector in the middle of a dollar crisis and a strengthening black market.
After devaluing the Egyptian pound in May, the Egyptian government has been so concerned by the mushrooming power of black market foreign exchange traders that in early June it introduced prison terms for anyone caught trading outside the accepted rate. The overall result is financial woes that go all the way to the top of the social hierarchy, worsening the brain drain that has dogged Egypt for decades.
The master’s students’ protests have continued into the sweltering Cairo summer, making it a year since they began doing battle with the government.
Speaking by phone in early June, Abu Zeid said that Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail had recently told them to look for private sector jobs because there would be no vacancies in the public sector.
“The youth were enraged,” said Abu Zeid.
Consistent with its love of bureaucracy, the government then created a body designed to hire the students and distribute them among the public sector, “But it’s been 25 days and the cabinet didn’t sign anything,” he added sadly. For now, the protests will continue.
The master’s students, civil servants and more recently journalists and young doctors have all shown the first signs of activists dodging the ban on protests, bringing the anti-government chants and banners back to Egypt’s streets. But the slogan used by the master’s students speaks to a deeper problem, one that has perhaps been unresolved since the time of Nasser himself: “Kill hope, kill dreams, our country is against knowledge.”