Why Egypt’s President Sisi is rushing to embrace nation’s youth

Why We Wrote This

That a nation’s youth is its future is part truth, part bromide. In a still-developing country with a youthful population bulge, providing for young people’s needs also creates a bulwark against instability.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Cars move along the 6th October Bridge near banners of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in Cairo, Oct. 2, 2019.

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Nine years ago disaffected young Egyptians launched a revolution that overthrew longtime President Hosni Mubarak. Like the current president, he was a career general who presented himself as a nationalist leader.

Today President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is presiding over the fastest growing economy in the Middle East. Construction is everywhere and investor confidence is returning. But more than half of Egypt’s population of 100 million is under the age of 25. And even as GDP has risen, so too has poverty. Youth unemployment hovers above 30%.

Mindful of the past, a restless President Sisi is pushing programs to meet the new generation’s needs: housing, health care, youth forums, and jobs. He’s using these programs to project a fatherly persona, that of a concerned leader “providing for” young Egyptians. Hugging young people in front of cameras pushes the point home.

“I have one million youth trying to enter the labor market each year. They want a home, they want to marry, they want to raise children,” Mr. Sisi recently told a group of foreign reporters. “How many jobs would you need to create? Could you do that, every year, for one million people?”

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is presiding over the fastest-growing economy in the Middle East, tourism is booming, and a war against ISIS-styled militants appears over.

Construction is everywhere and investor confidence is returning. There is a palpable energy and confidence radiating from Cairo’s streets.

Then why is the Egyptian leader restless?

Two words: one million.

Over half of Egypt’s population of 100 million – some 52% – are under the age of 25, while two-thirds are under the age of 30 and are looking for jobs and homes at a time the Egyptian economy is still recovering.

“I have one million youth trying to enter the labor market each year. They want a home, they want to marry, they want to raise children,” President Sisi recently told a group of foreign reporters. “One. Million.”

“How much would that cost in highly developed countries? How many jobs would you need to create? Could you do that, every year, for one million people?”

Therein lies Egypt’s challenge.

It was nine years ago that disaffected young Egyptians launched a revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. Like President Sisi, he was a career general who presented himself as a nationalist leader.

With that recent past in mind, Mr. Sisi, whose tenure has been marked by the suppression of dissent, is rushing to offer a warm embrace to young Egyptians to head off any potential unrest, opposition, and instability.

Economic recovery

Last month capped a remarkable recovery for Egypt, which just three years ago faced 30% inflation, 20% unemployment, a debt crisis, and devastating terrorist attacks across the Sinai and even in Cairo itself.

Egypt’s gross domestic product grew by 5.8% in 2019, up from 3% when Mr. Sisi was sworn in as president in 2014. Inflation dipped down to 2.7% in November, the lowest since the 2011 revolution.

But these numbers do not tell the whole story.

While GDP has risen, so too has poverty, with poverty rates up 5% over the past three years, according to the government Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. Youth unemployment hovers above 30%.

“In Egypt, the population is still growing, the majority still have access to higher education, yet the economy is not growing at a pace fast enough to create jobs for young people,” says Amr Adly, political economist and assistant professor at the American University of Cairo.

“Creating youth employment is no easy task.”

The government is now rolling out a series of youth dialogues, forums, and technocratic socio-economic programs to address those challenges and telegraph its good intentions.

Youth conference

One symbol of President Sisi’s urgent youth embrace is the “World Youth Forum,” an annual gathering to discuss the challenges and concerns of young people in Egypt, the Arab world, Africa, and beyond that is the brainchild of the Egyptian president himself.

At the forum, held in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, Mr. Sisi presides over panels and talks with young people flown in from across the world. Among the issues discussed: artificial intelligence, the fourth industrial revolution, cryptocurrency, and food security.

But more than just an emcee, Mr. Sisi is an active participant.

At the 2019 forum last month, the Egyptian president was sitting in the front row, furiously scribbling down notes on a pad of paper, and asking probing questions of speakers and the young audience.

He also never wasted an opportunity to tell Egyptian audiences of the stability he upholds.

On the sidelines, his ministers were buzzing about projects ranging from community biofuel plants to bike-sharing schemes for university students. Young Egyptian entrepreneurs and their businesses were showcased in booths.

“The government is encouraging and opening doors for young entrepreneurs,” says Khaled El-Sayed, founder of a startup highlighted at the Youth Forum. “It is a very different environment than a few years ago when we wouldn’t have even been noticed.”

Some of Mr. Sisi’s other youth programs are paternal, bordering on invasive.

One such program is Mawadda, or the “Affection” initiative, which promotes the importance of marriage among young Egyptians. To cut rising divorce rates, it aims to teach young people how to “pick the right partner.”

Another, the Presidential Leadership Program (PLP), directed by Mr. Sisi’s office, trains potential young leaders in social sciences and governance to prepare them for positions across government to be “the force for reform and change.”

In November, Mr. Sisi swore in 11 new governors who were PLP graduates, and the president says he expects to fill more government positions from these youths.

According to independent media reports, graduates of the program are now also filling posts in state-run and private media organizations, directing content at the behest of intelligence services.

Mega-project to youth projects

Initially there were different priorities for Mr. Sisi, who upon his rise to power in a 2013 military coup against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was flush with $20 billion in funds from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, eager for an ally to crush Mr. Morsi’s Brotherhood movement.

Since his 2014 election, the Egyptian president embarked on a series of megaprojects – among them an $8 billion expansion of the Suez Canal and a new administrative capital built outside Cairo – to mixed results.

The fight against terrorism and a brutal crackdown on political opposition also consumed Cairo’s energies.  

Yet as Gulf funding dried up and security was restored, Mr. Sisi and his government shifted to a series of targeted reforms, partnering in recent years with the private sector and the World Bank to fill gaps to provide housing, health care, and support for young entrepreneurs.

After a $40 billion housing project with the United Arab Emirates to build 1 million affordable homes broke down, Egypt pursued its own program with local banks and the World Bank, providing homes to 241,517 families.

It launched the Long Live Egypt Fund, a charitable fund to serve the poor and young Egyptians in health and housing, and wrote new regulations to support small to medium enterprises, which employ a bulk of Egypt’s citizens.

Last year, Cairo rolled out a new universal healthcare system that allows Egyptians to choose their health service providers, lowers their medical payments, and allows immediate care in private or public hospitals, a scheme praised even by government critics.

Father figure

Mr. Sisi has used these programs to project a fatherly persona, that of a concerned leader “providing for” young Egyptians to help ease painful economic reforms as his government grapples with decades of deep-seated economic issues.

Hugging young people in front of cameras pushes the point home.

The programs also have been instituted at a time the government has slashed energy subsidies, raised fuel prices, imposed taxes, and devalued the Egyptian pound to comply with a $12 billion International Monetary Fund loan.

This paternal approach also stems from Mr. Sisi’s belief that young Egyptians “want a home, job, and a family,” rather than freedoms and democracy.  

The president frequently blames the “chaos” of the 2011 democratic revolution for derailing Egypt’s economy and allowing extremist groups to flourish.

After years of post-revolution uncertainty, his argument is persuasive to some Egyptians.

But many liberal and independent Egyptians chafing under speech restrictions, and those from marginalized regions who have borne the brunt of austerity measures, would disagree.

So too would the thousands of young people – some reportedly as young as 11 – who have been arrested for alleged political activity or anti-corruption protests and who continue to languish in jail.

Yet in conversations on the streets of Cairo and on the sidelines of the youth conference, a number of ordinary young Egyptians say unprompted that they feel Mr. Sisi has their interests at heart.

“There is an establishment in place that historically worked against the Egyptian people, but President Sisi is changing this,” says Mostapha Ali, a Cairo craftsman who initially qualified for an affordable housing program before a local bank declined to approve his participation.

“At the very least he is trying and working for our interests.”

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that Mr. Sisi used a hastily arranged local youth conference in September to respond to corruption allegations by a former government contractor that went viral and sparked a spattering of protests against his rule.

“I am establishing a new state. I am doing so in the name of Egypt. ... The whole world will see it,” Mr. Sisi said to an audience of young Egyptians on national television, defending the construction of lavish presidential palaces and listing his government’s achievements.

“Nothing is in my name,” Mr. Sisi insisted. “It is in Egypt’s name.”

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