Mubarak is Gone but Young Women Still Struggle in Egypt

Thanks to a grant from the Simon Cumbers Fund, I spent time in Egypt before Christmas researching female youth unemployment after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. On the eve of the 1st anniversary of the Tahrir Square protests, my piece on the issue of jobless young women appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post.

Sara Ahmed, a 22 year-old graduate of the American University in Cairo, describes herself as a ‘modern Egyptian woman’. And with good reason: she’s bright, articulate, eschews the traditional hijab, preferring to wear her shiny black hair in a stylish bob, and sports Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses. Like many Cairene fashionistas, Ahmed dreams of a job in public relations. Or at least she did.

‘Now I’d take any job where the pay isn’t too bad and the work is OK,’ Ahmed says when we meet on the sprawling fringes of Tahrir Square, in downtown Cairo. The weekly Friday protest against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), a habitual feature of life in the Egyptian capital since last June, is thinning out. As the protestors’ anti-military chants fade into the cool evening air, an aging cigarette seller in front of us packs her bags.

‘I have to go shortly, too,’ says Ahmed, who has spent the past year applying for countless jobs without getting a single interview. ‘My father doesn’t know I’m here and I have to get back home before he realises I’m gone.’ Having stayed away during the tumultuous January days that culminated in the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak, Ahmed has become a Tahrir Square regular. ‘I’ve nothing else to do, maybe this will help somehow.’

As Egypt’s military rulers prepare to commemorate the first anniversary of the rising with a public holiday on January 25 replete with street parties, parades and outdoor concerts, young women like Sara Ahmed have little to celebrate. Unemployed youth, the shabab atileen who played a key role in the spring revolt, remain isolated and economically marginalised.

Egypt is experiencing a massive ‘youth bulge’. Some 20 million people, almost a quarter of total population, are aged 18-29. Of these over 25% are without work. The situation is even more acute for women: at just 18.5%, Egypt has one of the lowest female labour participation rates in the world. According to the US think-tank the Congressional Research Service, in 2010 90% of women were still without employment two years after leaving university.

The paucity of female economic activity is due, in part, to social and cultural factors, says Maia Sieverding, a researcher at Population Council in Cairo. ‘What is acceptable for a man and a woman to do is very different. Men are able to take any job they can get, women can’t.’

Remarkably over the last 20 years university-educated Egyptian women have become less, not more, likely to be in paid employment. For decades after the declaration of the republic in 1953, the public sector – with its Nasser-era policy of guaranteed jobs for graduates, short working hours and paid maternity leave – was the employer of choice of young women but state jobs have become scarce, while opportunities in the private sector offer scant social protection and even worse wages.

‘The kind of salaries university-educated girls are being offered might be 400-500 LE (50-65 Euro) a month, which doesn’t leave much once you cover transport to and from work and other necessary expenses,’ says Sieverding. Egypt does have a minimum wage – another relic of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab socialism – but at just 31 LE a month (4 euro) it’s less public policy and more comical anachronism.

‘For many women it’s logical not to take a job at all, given what’s often on offer,’ comments Lamia el-Sadek, a project manger at Plan Egypt, an NGO in Cairo. ‘But being economically and socially empowered is really important for young women, not just for the money but also for their own self-esteem.’

Plan co-ordinates a youth employability program called Forsa, which means ‘opportunity’ in Arabic. Intense courses are offered in areas with strong job prospects such as nursing and healthcare and customer relations. Importantly, graduates are matched with real world jobs.

More than 600 young people have graduated from Forsa since the program began. Among them is Marwa Abd-Nabg, a 23 year-old who holds a diploma in commerce but retrained as a nurse. ‘I was sitting at home for months after I finished college doing nothing. I’d just sit around and cry a lot,’ she says. Like more than 70% of Forsa graduates, the overwhelmingly majority female, Abd-Nabg now has a full-time job, in a local hospital.

Abd-Nabg’s father forbade her attending the protests in Tahrir Square that precipitated the fall of Mubarak but she supported the revolution and, despite its struggles since, believes the changes in Egypt are a boon for women. ‘Now we feel more confident to go out and get a job, to take responsibility for our own lives,’ she says.

Such optimism is not universal, however. After graduating from Forsa, Samar Mosad, 25, applied for positions across Cairo but, increasingly disillusioned, she now spends her days sitting at home watching television. ‘I want to work and to prove myself but the opportunities didn’t come,’ says Mosad, who wants to be a lawyer. ‘I can’t get a job because I don’t have experience and I don’t have wasta.’

One year on from Tahrir Square it’s difficult to say how much has changed in Egypt. The military retain an iron grip on the political process, albeit one that looks increasingly precarious; the economy, mired in a fug of corruption and joblessness, grew just 1.2% in 2011; and wasta, connections, remains the only reliable means of getting a good job for both sexes.

‘Egypt isn’t Tahrir Square,’ as Major General Mukhtar el-Mallah, a member of the ruling military council, once put it. While vituperative clashes between army and protestors sporadically breakout in the environs of downtown Cairo, away from the capital the situation is bleaker still. The World Bank estimates that 19.3 per cent of the Egyptian population live on less than $2 a day, the overwhelming majority in agrarian Upper Egypt.

Over 95% of Egypt’s poorest villages are in Upper Egypt, where literacy rates and access to social services are much lower, says Kevin Fitzcharles, country director of Care Egypt. Alongside Barclay’s Bank, Care is involved in ‘Banking on Change’, a community-based microfinance scheme aimed at developing and extending access to basic banking services such as savings and loans.

The theory is straightforward: 10 to 12 people save and lend relatively small amounts together at low interest rates, with all decisions taken by the group as a whole. A small annual subscription fee covers administration costs and a ‘social fund’ for unexpected outlays, such as funerals. Currently around 18,400 people in Upper Egypt are enrolled in the Banking on Change scheme.

‘A lot of women struggle to access their economic rights. In Upper Egypt, women do most of the work in agriculture but it’s almost always within the family and is unpaid,’ says Fitzcharles. Village micro-finance schemes offer an opportunity for women to save money from small businesses such as selling produce at market or making clothes. Most participants save between 1 and 5 LE (.13 – .65 Euro) a week, often reinvesting in their business or taking out loans to buy stock or equipment.

Despite the success of programs such as Forsa and Banking on Change, the climate for international NGOs in Egypt is increasingly testy. Many are wary of talking directly to journalists: understandable given that 39 NGOs are currently under investigation for ‘treason’ and ‘conspiracies’ against national security related to the putative offence of relying on foreign cash to fund their operations.

The constriction of the public sphere under the Scaf regime has disproportionately affected women. A 64-seat female quota introduced by Mubarak ahead of the 2010 parliamentary elections was scrapped before last year’s vote. Instead parties were obliged to include at least one female on their lists – a ruling that resulted in incongruous photographs of fully veiled women on Islamic parties’ election posters but saw just three women elected in Egypt’s protracted plebiscite. Meanwhile, last March a demonstration commemorating International Women’s Day was attacked in Tahrir Square by a group of more than 200 men.

‘Harassment in the work place is a major problem,’ says Rebecca Chiao founder of Harassmap, a website that allows Egyptian women to report incidents of sexual harassment by text message. ‘It’s easy, and very common, for managers to pressure women into sexual favours.’ According to the UN a staggering 50% of women in Egypt reported being subject to sexual harassment, with 8.7% of those aged 22-29 encountering harassment at work.

As well as addressing a culture of workplace harassment, the labour market needs to be formalised if women are to enter employment in greater numbers, says Population Council Maia Sieverding. ‘A large part of the problem is the quality of the jobs. There are lots of women who want to work but they need formal contracts with protections for things like maternity leave,’ says Sieverding.

Often at the vanguard of the movement that toppled Mubarak, women face an uncertain future in post-Arab Spring Egypt. The electoral success of Islamic parties – having captured a combined 65 per cent of the votes, the Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalist Salafis are set to dominate the new parliament – has led to renewed questions about the role of women in Egyptian society.

But the hard won victories – and the hope – of last January has not been completely forgotten in the autumn chill. A couple of hundred metres from Tahrir Square, at the self-styled Occupy protest near Egypt’s Cabinet Office, Ranza Ali refuses to accept a quiet return to the status quo.

‘We will continue fighting until we have won, and not before then,’ the 21 year-old communications student proclaims, wrapping a colourful keffiyeh around her shoulders. ‘We want a new Egypt, one that works for women and men. Only once we have got that will go.’ With that she breaks into a chant as relevant now as when it first emerged in Tahrir Square almost a year old: ‘Bread, freedom, Social justice.’