Youth frustrated with political trajectory of Egypt

EGYYouthGiza, EGYPT – Seven years ago, many young voters had such high hopes for Egypt – for its future and for their own.

These days, as the presidential election approaches, many say one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East has forgotten its revolution – and with it its way.

“The 2011 uprising felt like a new beginning for this country a time when everything seemed possible. We were very energetic to achieve this democracy,” said Mohamed Zaky El-Karany, a 25-year-old Giza resident who says he felt hope first during the Arab Spring and two years later when the country's Islamist president was pushed out.

“In 2013, I was happy of course that we got rid of an Islamist president but worried that there would be no democracy brought by military leaders," he added. "And I am sad to say I was right about that."

Such sentiments reign because incumbent President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi will run virtually unopposed in elections that begin March 26. Most of his challengers have withdrawn from the race claiming they had been intimidated by Egypt’s deep state. Three possible candidates from within the military were arrested by the authorities.

Egyptians say it's clear no one has a chance against the former head of military intelligence and army field marshal who replaced Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's first democratically elected president, after he was ousted from office in June 2013.

“I had planned on voting for Khaled Ali," said Yousef Shandawely, 24, sound engineer, referring to a human rights lawyer who withdrew from the race in January along with four other opponents. "I see now that El-Sissi is the Pharaoh of modern Egypt.”

Even so, discontent is simmering in the face of El-Sissi 's strong support among the civil service, rural voters and the Coptic Christian minority.

A majority of those unhappy with the situation in the country are its youth – and they matter because two-thirds of Egypt’s 90 million people are under the age of 29 – one of the youngest populations in the world.

As he heads into an election, President El-Sissi and his nominal challenger, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, have been campaigning on platforms targeting this population, promising employment and education opportunities for them. Both issues represent one of Egypt’s greatest challenges.

Even so, young critics say they don't believe the ruling army brass knows how to create private sector jobs or jump-start needed reforms in education. Instead, they point to El-Sissi’s mega projects, including a city built from scratch on the site of the WWII battlefield at Al Alamein and a $45 billion new capital in the desert 28 miles east of Cairo.

They say these projects are diverting funds needed for investment into education and promoting small business that could employ them. Egypt's youth unemployment rate is hovers around 30 percent, and 7 million youth are poised to enter the work force in the next five years.

“The regime is launching these projects with large investments assuming that it will solve the unemployment crisis and attract investments,” said El-Karany a youth leader in the Social Democratic Party, a leftist party headed by the nephew of a former president. “But this is not the development that people need, education and healthcare should be the first step to raise our human capital.”

Despite a growing population, government spending for education has declined from 2004 to 2017 from 11.9 % to 7.4 % of its budget, according to the government's official statistics agency.

Despite pre-election pledges for more money for schools, experts believe that the shortfall of education funding increases the likelihood of future unrest in Egypt.

“Thirty-five percent of Egyptian children in school do not know how to read or write, so the public-school system is failing to prepare students for either university education or vocational training," said Adel Abdel Ghafar an Egyptian researcher at the Brookings Center in Doha. “Poor education is disadvantaging them for life.”

Some young Egyptians also say they are chafing at restrictions of civil rights.

“The economic situation is getting worse because of the military mentality that dominates all organizations including the education system,” said Sameh Ahmed a 25-year-old graduate of the Cairo University Engineering school in Giza.

“University officials first decided to restrict student political activities but now these bans have extended to all kinds of extracurricular activities,” he added.

El-Sissi’s defenders say the president is doing the best he can give the security and economic challenges he inherited – problems they blame on mismanagement and corruption in 30 years of rule by Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in the revolution in 2011. They point to the three years of instability which followed the Arab spring and the subsequent standoff between El-Sissi’s military and radicalized Islamists.

Violence directed at Coptic Christians and their churches and Islamic State attacks on security forces in the Sinai and even in Cairo, have become commonplace since Morsi’s ouster.

“By holding dialogue sessions with young Egyptians and establishing a new National Academy to train civil servants, El-Sissi has taken steps toward youth empowerment,” said Michael Mamadouh, a 20-year-old business major at Ain Shams University in the middle-class Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.

“At this point it’s obvious that we must give up some freedom to have more security and economic development,” said Mamadouh who said he would vote for El-Sissi.

But with persistent dissatisfaction bubbling just beneath the surface, there are warning signs that the youth bulge could turn into an outburst of unrest if the economic needs of the Arab spring generation remain unmet.

According to Dalia Research, a Berlin-based Market Research & Opinion Tracking group, the willingness of Egyptians to take to the streets has increased in recent months.

In November and December, 13% of the internet-connected population surveyed said they would be likely to join a protest or demonstration within the coming 90-day period. By January, that number nearly doubled, ticking up to 24%.

“Unless El-Sissi makes allowances for political pluralism during his second term in office, the risk of political instability will continue to increase,” said Joseph Colonna, a Cairo-based analyst with Global Risk Insights.

Many who led the uprisings against Morsi and Mubarak have called for a boycott of what they call a sham election. Some are heeding that call.

“I will not participate in the elections," Shandawely said. "And don’t be surprised if after a while, people will take to take to the streets in sudden protests.”
An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.
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