Until three years ago, Yasser al-Sheikh had a small restaurant near the Brussels-Midi train station. More precisely, it was a kiosk where you could buy good Egyptian falafel and hummus in the heart of Europe. When I met him in Brussels, he told me he had dreamed of playing for Egyptian soccer team Al Ahli. But "in Egypt, where I was born, only someone who has money can bribe the team managers to accept his son. I didn't have money."
Instead of playing soccer, Al-Sheikh studied for a master's degree in English at the University of Tanta, in the Nile Delta region. With a degree in hand, he waited a few years to get a job in the Egyptian education system. When the hoped-for appointment did not arrive, he moved to France, and from there to Belgium. A few weeks ago, he informed me that he had left Belgium and returned to France "to open a slightly nicer restaurant."
Al-Sheikh is one of the 6.5 million Egyptian emigrants who have set off to try their luck in other Arab countries, Europe or the United States. The Egyptian paper Al-Mesryoon reported last week that at least 700,000 Egyptians filed applications to immigrate to Europe and the U.S. this year. Some 97 percent of them are university graduates, including 700 with doctorates and around 4,000 with master's degrees.
Brain drain is not a new phenomenon in Egypt, but in recent years it has been growing at an alarming rate, threatening the future of the state's scientific infrastructure. The Egyptian Ministry of Manpower and Emigration is trying to get Egyptian scientists to return home, but its limited budget does not allow it to create jobs that correspond to their skills.
The paradox is that this very same ministry also makes it easier for university graduates who want to emigrate to do so. Its website has an abundance of suggestions for submitting resumes and information on the various forms job-seekers need. Given the number of visitors to the site - over 14.5 million, including around 250,000 job-seekers who have registered there - it seems the ministry's main effort is devoted to helping Egyptians find someplace outside Egypt where they can get a better job than they could at home.
Indeed, the ministry's emigration department doesn't even conceal its ambition to encourage emigration from Egypt. In its list of goals, the very first one is "to develop practical plans and policies to encourage Egyptians' emigration and provide opportunities for their success, in the belief that migration is a natural and continuous phenomenon."
Work-related emigration from Egypt falls into two categories: emigration to other Arab countries and emigration to the West. Both categories were given telling designations in the Emigration Law. Migration to Arab countries, where emigrants do not receive permanent residency or the same rights as citizens and their employment conditions are subject to agreements signed by Egypt's government with those countries, is "temporary emigration." But emigration to Western countries, from which few Egyptians are willing to return, is "permanent emigration."
In 2005, Egypt was in 12th place worldwide in terms of the number of emigrants. The government encourages emigration on the theory that it generates income through remittances. But Egyptian experts say the income generated by emigrants who send part of their earnings back to their families is actually a huge national loss, because Egypt then has to import experts from abroad, while Egyptians themselves are pushed into dead-end jobs.
"The primary reason for labor migration from Egypt is the lack of job opportunities and the country's living conditions," said Luca Azzoni of the International Labor Organization. "Students in Egyptian universities enjoy a high-level education that is on a par with international standards, but the labor market does not meet the graduates' expectations."
The global financial crisis, which affected wealthy Arab countries as well, led to a decline in labor migration to these countries, formerly the main destination for Egyptian workers. But would-be returnees cannot be absorbed in the absence of suitable jobs. Moreover, Egypt needs to create 800,000 new jobs annually for new entrants into the labor market.
The government has therefore started developing training programs in around 20 professions at which both returnees and new university graduates can study, with the goal of teaching them how to meet European standards so they can search for jobs in the European Union.
It also signed an agreement with the Egyptian organization Information Era under which the group will locate talented Egyptians around the world with the goal of persuading them to enlist in improving the level of knowledge and technology in Egypt. According to a report published by the organization, Western countries have absorbed over 450,000 scientists from Arab countries over the years, and these emigrants represent around 31 percent of all educated migrants from the developing world to the West.
"These are good programs and the intentions are good," said Diab Omer, whose son is attending the American University in Cairo.
"But we know the reality in Egypt. Those who obtain government support are first of all people with connections, who don't have to worry about their livelihood or supporting their children. The number of unemployed academics is too big for the government to be able to cope with it. I don't see how the problem will be resolved by the time my son completes university.
"I'm already looking for a suitable job for my son in a European country. Basically, I'm doing the state a favor, so it won't have to arrange another job."
Seeing to jobs for university graduates will be the most important challenge facing President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal Mubarak, should he be the next president. Mubarak is preparing himself for the job. But on this issue, his voice has not been heard.
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