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July 2006

A Diamond in the Rough

Egypt's Untapped Brilliance

by Shaden Mohamed

Egypt is a diamond in the rough

"Would you like sugar with your cappuccino?" smiled the enthusiastic barrista, as well-presented as the stylish Airport Cafe that he worked in. Our flight from Sydney to Cairo had been anything but a smooth one, for it was the first time that our luggage had gone missing. We decided to wait it out in the airport's eatery, which had undergone dramatic change since our last visit.

"Can I ask you a question?" smiled my mother, as the young man brought us our coffee.

"Yes, of course," replied the waiter politely, somewhat pleased with the temporary distraction.

"Well, you seem to be very energetic. Have you been working here long?"

The young man laughed softy, "Yes I have been, why do you ask?"

"Well it's good to see young Egyptians taking pride in their work," replied my mother. Her comments took him by surprise, and in his smile appeared a very subtle air of sadness.

"Well I'm actually a commerce graduate. I decided to work here until an opportunity for work in my field comes up... I've been here for a while...."

Brightest Minds Neglected

I hadn't even been on Egyptian soil for more than a day, and I had already witnessed the country's economic situation. This young man's story was not an isolated problem. In fact, it was a dilemma that many Egyptians were facing. With thousands upon thousands of young graduates, and not enough work to go round, many of Egypt's brightest minds were being neglected. In the words of the young waiter, Egypt didn't have room for the twenty thousand accountants who graduated each year. Rather than stay at home unemployed, many opted to work in other fields, or take up less-desired positions. Our local mechanic in Cairo, for example, is actually a fully-qualified engineer. With no 'wasta' (contacts valuable for networking), he had no hope of finding work in his field.

Taking Work Abroad

Other Egyptians, on the other hand, were too proud to take on blue-collar work.

"Why should I work as a cleaner when I have a degree that took me five years to complete?"

This was the attitude of many, who felt remorse for the lack of opportunities and the decline in stable positions. While some like our mechanic friend chose to bite the bullet and do whatever they could to earn a living, others refused to conform. Instead, they took up blue-collar work abroad, or travelled to the Gulf in search of work in their field. If Egyptians are willing to sacrifice their skills and education to mop the bathroom of a European hotel, at least they're getting paid in Euros for it.

By the same token, Egyptians who insist on using their knowledge and degrees, are paying a hefty price for the privilege. Becoming work mules for rich aristocrats in Saudi Arabia, or taken advantage of by large corporations in the United Arab Emirates, Egyptians now have a reputation for being the most qualified, the most hard working, and also the most willing to accept a lower salary.

Migration of Top Scientists

Not all countries take advantage of our talented citizens without rewarding them. In fact, it is the Egyptian Government which stands to lose more in the long run. Brilliant young scientists, doctors, engineers, pilots and academics are being swooped up by countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Recent statistics by Al Jazeera news show that the Middle East is losing billions of dollars in technological advancements due to the migration of their top scholars and scientists to other countries. Farouk El-Baz, Hani Abdel-Nabi and Sir Magdi Yacoub, for example, are great Egyptians whose careers and important works flourished abroad.

The greatest medical and scientific breakthroughs are being made by Egyptians who are NOT in Egypt. Why should they be? Having graduated from University, the lack of opportunity to continue developing their talents, or the poorly paid positions on offer, pushes these graduates away. Unless they are 'involved' in Egypt's political and social hierarchy, the only option is to seek opportunity abroad. So when a foreign company or Government offers them everything but the Moon, then it's pretty clear what their answer will be. Egypt hasn't supported them, let alone given them a chance to grow to their full potential. Ironically, the respect that they receive is from a non-Egyptian source, so why should they be patriotic?

A Paradox

Yet, looking at the employment and careers pages of the Middle East and surrounding areas, Egypt is over-flowing with vacant positions. I discussed this paradox with my cousin.

"There are so many talented people unable to find work, and yet online there are numerous positions available!"

My cousin nodded. "Yes, there are many great jobs out there, but who gets them? You either have to know someone, be exceptionally brilliant, or be a foreigner. So those jobs are really only open to a handful of people."

I shook my head in dismay, angry at the Government's inability to tackle the growing unemployment rates.

Failed Protectionism

Now many might argue that the Egyptian Government imposed higher tax reforms to imported goods so as to encourage Egypt's manufacturing industry. By eliminating the inexpensive availability of foreign products, Egyptian production would increase and thus help solve the growing unemployment rates.

This plan is of course an excellent one, provided that production standards are enforced, and variety and competition made available to the consumer. Prior to the reforms and added sales tax, Egyptian manufacturers had to compete with imported goods from Europe or America by offering products and services of similar, if not better quality (not to mention at much cheaper rates). Therefore, Egyptian production was a stale business for would-be manufacturers. The reform made it possible for the Industry to grow, and offered the average Egyptian a supposedly 'cheaper and better' alternative.

This, however, did not occur. Rather, Egyptian manufacturers monopolised the market, selling products of poor quality at higher than average prices. This is because now, their only competition is Asia, whose 'made in Taiwan and China' products are perhaps a fraction cheaper, but a lot poorer in quality. What choice does the average, under-paid or unemployed Egyptian have but to buy these goods?

Never mind the fact that the seaming of a skirt unravels after the first wash, or the fact that the soles of an 'Egyptian-made' sneaker wear out after a 10 minute walk down the street. And if you don't like it, you can either walk bare foot, or purchase an imported shoe at six times the price. If the average, tertiary-qualified Egyptian earns somewhere between 500-800 pounds a month, then how is he or she expected to pay 600 pounds for the latest pair of Nike Air?

The products and services on offer will never improve in quality or price as long as the competition is kept at bay. In a country of seventy million people, having a mere TWO mobile service providers, for instance, is nothing short of ridiculous. Why then, should these corrupt company owners feel compelled to lower their prices? Why then, should they be concerned that their profit margins are growing at the expense of their fellow countrymen?

"Why don't more people offer mobile and phone services? Why are there only two?" I asked my Uncle. Patting me on the back in pity at my innocence, my Uncle smiled and explained.

"Those who give the licences, or allow the opening of another company, aren't exactly honest. They are paid to keep the competition away."

This was apparently the case for most products and service providers in Egypt. If the lack of competition doesn't cause an increase in price, then it certainly causes a lack in production quality.

Too Busy Worrying About Money

The gloomy prospect of looking for work doesn't stop at the inability to buy the latest sports clothing or pay for the latest mobile phone. With minimum income, expensive living costs, and little choice in the products and services that are available, it's no wonder people remain single until they're old and grey. How can a young man expect to support himself, let alone a family, if the income he's earning is less than a teenager's pocket money in the West?

While Islam encourages marriage at a young age so as to avoid committing sin, how is this possible when environmental circumstances make it impossible?

It's no wonder many go astray as they lose the uphill battle to overcome social, political and economic adversity. It's no wonder people are unable to focus on developing their religious and academic knowledge; they're too busy worrying about paying for their next meal! While some think this is a conspiracy by 'the enemies of Islam' to keep the people's minds occupied on anything but that which is of relative importance, others claim it to be an 'internal tactic,' used to keep the people subdued, weak and thus incapable of fighting for their democratic rights.

Regardless of social standing, all will feel the effects of the Nation's decline in the long run, should this deterioration continue. Those who remain strong politically and financially at the top of the ladder, cannot keep such positions if the majority of Egyptians – who represent the middle and bottom steps of the ladder – become weak. Eventually, the slightest strain will cause the entire ladder to break, top steps and all.

With Egypt in this state of affairs, people jump at the chance to leave. Attaining a foreign Visa is like winning a ticket to freedom. Unemployed, unmarried and voiceless, who can blame them?

All I know is that despite this crisis, Egypt is a diamond in the rough. The charisma of a nation, hopeful despite severe adversity; the beauty of a country, with unparalleled history; the wealth of a Government, unable to yet distribute such opulent resources to its people. With the right tools, this diamond can be polished, to reveal a brilliance the world has never seen.

Of Egyptian background, Shaden Mohamed was born and bred in Sydney, Australia, where she attained a degree in Media & Communications. As an accomplished writer, Shaden has a passion for educating and informing others in her community on the beauty of her culture. "My dream is to inspire people with my writing because I believe that literature is the most beautiful form of expression."

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