The American University in Cairo (AUC) discussed the main findings on youth as part of the AUC Forum’s three-year interdisciplinary collaborative research project with SAHWA in five different Arab Mediterranean countries (Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Lebanon). To study a variety of youth issues in these countries, the SAHWA project, titled “Researching Arab Mediterranean Youth: Towards a New Social Contract,” brought together AUC Forum and 14 partners from Europe and the Arab world to participate in a quantitative and qualitative analysis research on the problems that Arab youth face in terms of employment, education, migration and civic/political participation. In a press conference held to discuss the findings, unemployment and education among youth were among the most highlighted findings in the research presented by SAHWA researchers.According to the SAHWA project, employment is the most significant problem facing Arab youth, and for the majority of Egyptian youth, the private sector remains the main employer, with more than 85 percent of males and 70 percent of females working for for-profit businesses. Bahgat Korany, professor of international relations and director of AUC Forum, explained the gender gap is due to a lack of some skills by women and demanding positions in the market. Korany explained the gender gap is due to a lack of some skills by women and demanding positions in the market. “A problem with the private sector is that it requires long working hours and long commutes, which is difficult for some women with families.”
In the Arab world, youth make up a great majority of the population and are the fastest-growing segment, with 66 percent of the population under 29 years of age.
A major issue facing almost 30 percent of Egyptian youth as research showed is not finding a job even while holding bachelor’s degrees. “They don’t qualify for many of the jobs available,” declared Korany. “We have in Egypt, and in many other Arab countries, a contradictory situation. You have a high level of unemployment and yet jobs that are not filled; that’s a contradiction and a puzzle. The key to the puzzle is the defective educational system, which does not prepare the youth to meet market demands.”
Given the challenges Egyptian youth face in trying to find a career, many of them turn to the informal sector for job opportunities, with more than 60 percent of respondents surveyed agreeing that they would accept a job even if it was badly paid.
“In Algeria, unemployment is still high at 10 per cent of the total population, however the number increases to 32 per cent among youth, and Algeria is one of the most Arab countries that receives Arab or foreign labor,” said Mustapha Omrane, professor of sociology and demography at the University of Khemis-Miliana, Algeria and an associated researcher at the Centre de recherche en économie appliquée pour le développement (CREAD) in Algeria, who has represented the results on youth in Algeria at the conference.
Informal employment within the Middle East region is a common trend that reflects the ineffective educational system and increasing impact of poverty. Like most Egyptian youth, more than half of Algerian youth (56 percent) are employed in the informal sector
Emphasizing that the educational system throughout the region does not prepare youth enough to meet job market demands, Korany noted, “The educational system in Egypt, for example, is too formalistic, uncritical and rigid, and doesn’t allow young people to explore different interests at the same time,” he said.
Lack of interest in political participation is another common trend among the countries studied. Egypt recorded the highest level of youth that do not belong to any political party and that do not belong to any cultural or neighborhood association, at 95 percent and 85 percent respectively.
“There have been many unexpected results on terms of political participation; it appears that youth’s political engagement in the five countries is very low. Also the idea that most of the young people would like to migrate, is not true, as less than 20 per cent would like to migrate in almost the four countries except for Tunisia where the number reaches 53 per cent of the youth,” said Elena Sanchez, Spain Scientific coordinator, at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs CIDOB and a participant in the project.
Similarly, Lebanese youth expressed distrust with political parties. “They stayed without a president for more than two years,” said Korany. “There is a reason for them to strongly believe that policies will not change and the political mindset will be the same, so overall they’re not very optimistic about their future.”
To solve the growing unemployment challenges in the region, Korany pointed out there are microeconomic factors to look at before finding solutions. “If you go into a model of development that is very capital-intensive, obviously you don’t have big availability of jobs,” he said. “The population in Egypt is increasing every month by around 100,000 people, so there aren’t enough labor-intensive sectors in the economy, and the gap continues to widen. The number of unemployed citizens is piling up.”
For Korany, qualitative and quantitative research is useful in finding effective policies and solutions that can address the long-standing challenges faced by today’s Arab youth.