Social conservatism – not Sisi – is the cause of Egypt’s unsolvable unemployment problem

This week The New Yorker published a very interesting in-depth piece titled Egypt’s Failed Revolution. Here was one reaction to the article:


I came away with a different, more favorable, impression.
I thought Peter Hessler laid out the facts of his journalistic investigation. And left it up to the readers to determine whether those facts are “unchangeable realities” or something that can be changed by the “actions of individuals.”

Salamma Moussa had this takeaway upon reading the article (which I happen to agree with):

Screen Shot 2016-12-31 at 9.52.08 AM.png

Here’s just one anecdote from the article that I had never heard before:
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Moussa’s Tweet is accurate. The attitude described above is not something unique to the President of the country. It’s an attitude that is pervasive at all levels of society. And contrary to what Professor Dunne suggests, I would argue this does limit Egypt’s economic development possibilities.

 Here’s an anecdote from my time studying Arabic in Cairo: 

My Arabic teacher had introduced me to a family friend of hers, an accountant named Mahmoud  who needed to work on his English to increase his chances of getting a promotion. With two kids approaching school age, Mahmoud needed to generate more income to pay for tuition.

We became language partners. This meant that we met each week for two hours talking one hour in Arabic, one in English.

After a couple of months, Mahmoud told me he had been offered a job that would more than double his salary. Great – Mabrook, I told him.

Oh I decided not to take it.


It’s too far away.

Where? You mean like Saudi Arabia or the UAE?

No. In Alexandria.

Wait why? But you’ve been talking for three months about how you need to make more money.

I know but I won’t be able to see my family

Some context for those not familiar with Egypt:

Alexandria is a two hour, $5 train ride away from Cairo. And by family Mahmoud meant not his wife and kids who would be with him in Alexandria, but broader family, as in cousins, aunts and uncles, mother and father etc.

To be honest I liked Mahmoud’s attitude. At a time when so many in the West think first and foremost about themselves, and then family only later, I found it refreshing.

But at the same time, it was an example of this cultural conservatism that pervades all levels of Egyptian society. Multiply this attitude by 80 million people and there is no question that it affects economic development possibilities in the country as a whole, irregardless of who and how great the leader may be.

Egypt vs China

This was another important part of the New Yorker article. It is without question true – China has become what China is because it has a vastly different cultural mentality that doesn’t exist in Egypt and many other Middle Eastern countries.

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-9-58-26-amThis brief mention of the spike in pregnancies is another interesting part of this social conservatism angle. It is unquestionably true that there is in Egypt a widespread unwillingness to use any form of protection.

To some extent it is seen as not being manly. Just as importantly, it’s seen as fighting God’s will. There are also good reasons at the family level to have that attitude.  In a very poor country, government isn’t going to help you out in old age, it’s strong family ties of the kind advocated by my friend Mahmoud. More kids means mean people helping you out etc.

That being said, Egypt now having a population of 90 million people has created a massive, fundamentally insolvable unemployment, that directly contributes to its political instability. It is hard for me to see anything that any leader can do to change that.

I guess this is how I would differ from esteemed scholars such as Dunne and Hawthorne.

I’d just say it is what it is. Whereas they believe it’s something that can be changed by better leadership at the top.

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5 thoughts on “Social conservatism – not Sisi – is the cause of Egypt’s unsolvable unemployment problem

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