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What has Happened to Egypt’s 99%?

One year on from the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is still facing a fragile transition to democracy. While all eyes are on Tahrir Square, the struggles of the ordinary Egyptian remain largely inconspicuous. Tackling their economic woes remains critical in order to secure a true transition to democracy.

It has been one year since Egyptians rose up and put an end to the 29-year rule of “their” president, Hosni Mubarak, following weeks of determined popular protest. To many, the ouster of Mubarak came to represent the vindication of the rights of the people and their desire for “bread, freedom, and dignity”.

Over the past year the media has rallied around the prolific events commanding the trajectory of Egypt's transition – most notably the first free parliamentary elections and the continued protests against military rule. While covering the ensuing power struggles between liberals and Islamists, and the military and the protesters, the struggles of the common Egyptian person have remained largely inconspicuous. This begs the question: what are the lives of ordinary Egyptians like, a year after the uprising? I spoke to two Egyptians to find out.

Egypt's forgotten future

While waiting to be let into one of Zamalek's many bars I strike up a conversation with Amr, the doorman. A 25-year-old with a degree in business and experience in Dubai's hospitality industry, Amr has not been able to find a fitting job upon graduation. He is a prime example of the demographic youth bulge that is driving unemployment in Egypt. With people entering the labour force at approximately 4% every year, the Egyptian economy has to generate over 1 million jobs per year to keep abreast. Particularly urban, educated youth are hit hard. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, unemployment among this group is almost ten times as high for college graduates as it is for people who have gone through only elementary school.

Speaking in fluent English Amr explains to me: “I have experience and I am willing to work hard.”

He pauses to let some affluent youth into the club and then continues: “Social mobility in Egypt, particularly for higher-educated people, is still very much based on connections, with less regard for merit. As a result, people like me do not get a chance to prove themselves.”Amr's sentiments echo the findings of researchers who concluded that Middle Eastern countries like Egypt face a decline in social mobility among the increasingly well-educated youth and that personal connections prove to be decisive.

"They Wanted Jobs and Education"

Islam is a project manager for an NGO with considerable experience in social work in Egypt's Delta region.He describes the predicament of the Egyptian youth after the revolution as one of continued social injustice and inequality: “Many of the middle-class youth face the same trend they faced before the revolution - job inequality leading to low social mobility”. As a result, many university jobs are still in the domain of the country's elite.

The current situation is emblematic of the reforms undertaken by Mubarak since 2000. His economic policiesstrengthened annual growth but largely failed to trickle down to improve economic conditions for Egypt's 99%. Particularly among the younger generations, there is a strong conviction that the public sector must become more responsive to the needs of the people. Much more than their parents, those in the younger generation feel part of a social contract and are committed to keeping the government bound to it. Or, as Amr defiantly says to me: “Egyptians pay taxes and want the government to achieve work for them.”

This lack of investment in Egypt's human capital is particularly clear where education is concerned. The government has failed to update its curriculum in all levels of education since the early 1980s. According to Islam, “many urban youth consequently enter the labour force without a specific skill set. We try and provide them with vocational training for vacant jobs. But most educated young Egyptians are not interested in learning craftsman trades.”

Managing these expectations has proven to be extremely difficult over the past year. To Egyptians like Amr and Islam, the uprising in Egypt was a call for social justice and equality more than an expression of a universal democratic desire. “The people of Egypt wanted a say in the government, yes, but most of all, they wanted jobs and education”, says Islam.

“I work to be able to eat. Working, eating, sleeping – that's all”, says Amr with a resigned look in his eyes. With youth unemployment currently at about 25%, and with 60% of Egypt's population aged 30 and under, a dangerous situation is unfolding. Egypt's public finances leave little room for investment and with the country’s foreign currency reserves falling and the currency under severe pressure, a steep drop in the exchange rate could bring painful inflation and more social unrest. Is Egypt's prolonged political crisis of the past year also becoming a lasting economic crisis?

Islam disagrees - “We are seeing the last phase of these unrests – soon we will be able to work on the future of Egypt.” Amr adds: “We have the resources to become one of the world's big economies.” But while we are speaking, Egypt's political crisis added yet another chapter with protesters in Tahrir Square trying to storm the Ministry of the Interior for its alleged involvement in the football riots in Port Said. And while the country's elites and a small group of protesters are involved in a power struggle, Egypt's 99% has largely remained silent about issues like the struggle to find a job, the declining security situation, and rising living costs.

During the 1977 bread uprising journalist Sabri Abul Magd asked one of the boys who were destroying cars passing on one of the bridges: “why are you burning your country?” The boy answered: “It’s not my country! It’s the others'!”

One year after the uprising that toppled Mubarak, most Egyptians still believe in a better Egypt for all citizens. But with the country's economic situation becoming more dire by the day and the country still in political limbo, Egypt's underbelly is becoming more and more exposed. Any civilian government will have to tackle the challenges faced by Egypt's 99% to sustain the inspiring but fragile progress made since February 11, 2011.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.