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Page last updated at 06:51 GMT, Tuesday, 11 August 2009 07:51 UK

Frustrated dreams of young Egyptians

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Cairo

Samy and his family
Home is where the mausoleum is for Samy and his family

Samy shares his home with dead people; they are buried around his kitchen, 60 of them, and he does not know any of them.

It might sound macabre but there is nothing about his story that would shock Egyptians.

In fact, statistics suggest that one in 18 people in Cairo now live in the City of the Dead. They have stopped asking why.

The necropolis stretches from the edge of medieval Cairo, five miles (8km) along the foot of the imposing Muqattam cliffs and now incorporates four different cemeteries.

The domes mark the more important tombs, such as the family mausoleum of Muhammad Ali, the founder of modern day Egypt. Inside, the elaborate cenotaphs of his three sons are topped with crowns, fezzes and turbans, the mark of royalty.

We shouldn't have to live here... I dream of leaving this place
15-year-old Samah

But inside the more earthly surroundings of Sami's home, the mausoleum looks more like a suburban bungalow.

The courtyard is dressed in brightly coloured laundry, there are curtains hanging at the grilled windows, and draped from the roof of Samy's bedroom - built as a tomb - are the electric wires that steal power from the local grid.

"It's bigger than most of those empty apartments on the ring road," said Samy, boastfully. "And a lot cooler. I have even got a garden."

But for Samah, Samy's 15-year-old daughter, the family home is nothing to be proud off. In fact it's an embarrassment.

At school she is marked, stigmatized, as a child of the "grave squatters".

"We shouldn't have to live here," she said. "We are an intelligent, educated family. My sister is at the faculty of engineering, my brother is studying Arabic, and I am studying to go to media college.

"I dream of leaving this place. One day we will buy a new home and pretend we have lived there all our lives."

'Desperate situation'

We don't have a statistic for how many young people live in the City of Dead but 60% of Cairo's population is under the age of 25.

Samah is typical of the Arab youth that aspires to something better, works hard, and yet still can't break the shackles of their harsh reality.

They are known as "waithood" - the young people forced to spend the best years of their life waiting for a job, a salary and a house.

When they leave the classroom, 70% of Egyptian school leavers are forced into the informal sector.

Many of them can't afford a family. In the city the average age of marriage has jumped to 31.

"It's a desperate situation for these people - but it is not only in the City of the Dead, there are tens of slums… they are everywhere around Egypt," said Dr Ibrahim El-Issawy, an economist for a government advisory body, The Institute of National Planning.

"They are crying out for 'basic' needs; good public education, health services, employment opportunities. They are not there," he added. "Except for the privileged few."

Young people are looking nervously at their future and they don't like what they see
Radwa Rashad
Teenstuff magazine

In the latest disturbing Arab Human Development Report, the United Nations Development Programme says the Arab world will need to create 50 million new jobs by 2020 to accommodate this growing, youthful workforce.

Until this year, the Egyptian government's reforms were beginning to show some positive shoots of growth. But today they are in danger of wilting in the new economic climate.

"It is not 'oh, I am going to be having fun, I am joining college next year; party time'," said Radwa Rashad, an editor at Teenstuff magazine.

"It's more 'how am I going to get married? What about buying a house?'. Young people are looking nervously at their future, and they don't like what they see."

No voice

Sentiments that are shared by the magazine's young writers. If they are considered "the privileged few" then why don't they feel they belong to Egyptian society?

"I want to be a pilot or an astronaut," said 18-year-old Ahmed. "It's just not that easy in Egypt. You have to know the right people.

"Yes, if you offered me a green card to the United States I would take it. That way I would be in charge of my own career, my own life."

Ahmed and other writers at Teenstuff magazine
Teenstuff magazine writers question what Egypt has to offer them

That ambition to live and work abroad is shared by many.

"If you work with young, talented people, they will always tell you they are gaining time in order to grab a chance to emigrate elsewhere, " said Yousef Sidhoum, editor of al-Watani, an Egyptian Sunday weekly.

His paper set up a youth parliament to try to give students the opportunity to "speak out" about their frustrations. It is hugely popular.

But in truth this is not a country where young people have a voice.

They are not readily encouraged to think critically and debate. In all but name, this is a one party state and freedom of expression has its limits.

"We tried to take the youth parliament to three different governorates," said Mr Sidhoum. "We were not welcomed by the National Democratic Party officials (the ruling party).

"We were told clearly and in the strongest terms that any such effort should be blessed and chaired by the National Democratic Party itself."

The critics say the real blame for the growing weight of problems faced by the Arab world lies with the rulers who have spent more time preserving their own rule, than they have in delivering society's most basic needs.

And not until the government opens up and makes convincing in-roads into the poor standard of education, health care and "affordable" housing, will young Arabs truly feel they have a country and a future they can call their own.



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