Youth as “Problem”
If al-Ghayti’s diatribe can be read as a catalog of interlinked themes that run through the discourse of Egypt’s nationalist intelligentsia concerning the threatening and corrupting influences posed by Israel, Westernization, sexuality, and Western mass culture, another important and related motif in this nationalist discourse concerns precisely who is at risk. Those said to be most threatened by these dangers are youths, the shabab, and particularly the young men. On August 21, 1995, Ruz al-Yusuf, Egypt’s leading weekly magazine, a sensationalist but well-regarded nationalist public-sector vehicle, published an exposé about advertisements that had appeared in Egyptian magazines, promoting telephone numbers that promised to connect callers with “new friends.” It turned out that such calls were quite expensive and that they connected the consumer to sex professionals in Israel (“Isra’il tuharib” 1995). Under the banner “Normalization by Sex with Israel” the issue’s seductive cover photo of Tina Turner wearing a miniskirt and exposing considerable cleavage was intended to convey the dangers of “phone sex.” In the predictably melodramatic account of the arrival of Israeli phone sex, we learn that once the peace treaty was signed with Egypt in 1978, Israeli intelligence agencies turned away from Egypt’s military secrets and began to study Egypt’s social ills with the aim of exploiting them. What they discovered is that Egyptian youths are afflicted by sexual problems that are traceable to the country’s economic difficulties and make it difficult for them to marry and satisfy their sexual needs. Phone sex along with AIDS, counterfeit money, and heroin are all Israeli exports designed to take advantage of Egyptian youths’ difficulties (“Isra’il tuharib” 1995, 21).
Despite its propagandistic exaggerations, the Ruz al-Yusuf article does nevertheless point to some of the concrete causes of the “youth crisis.” Youths in Egypt do indeed face a crisis of opportunity, which particularly affects those from the lower and lower-middle classes who manage to get university degrees. An advanced degree is supposed to guarantee a government job, but today the waiting period for actually getting such a position is about ten years. In any case, the pay for such sought-after jobs averages a pitiful £E 100 (U.S.$30) per month, and legions of state employees must moonlight to make ends meet. Opportunities for work in the private sector, especially “respectable” jobs that educated youths will accept, are also limited. Such economic obstacles in turn make getting married a laborious and much-delayed process. Marriage, however, is a requirement for any young person who wishes to become a social adult, to achieve independence within a nuclear family, to move out of his or her parental home, and to gain sexual access. Because marriage requires considerable outlays of money and families of prospective brides demand the whole package (i.e., a furnished apartment, etc.) to ensure that their daughters are well settled, unless a youth comes from a wealthy family, he will frequently not marry until he reaches his early thirties. Many young men migrate to work in the Gulf countries and toil there for as long as five to ten years to save up enough money for marriage. The Central Agency for Statistics estimates that four million Egyptians have “missed the train of marriage” because they are well into their thirties, beyond the accepted marrying age; and some have calculated that the number of marriages registered in the country has declined by nearly 1 percent (Alatraqchi 1996, 21), an astonishing fact for a country with such a young population. As a result, the social category “youth” in Egypt includes large numbers of men (and some women) in their late twenties and early thirties. It is widely recognized that the crisis afflicting them is in part sexual, because sexual outlets outside of marriage are limited, proscribed, and, usually, prohibitively expensive and because “dating” is generally unacceptable unless one is already engaged. Such factors contribute to making “sex” a major topic of discussion and controversy in Egypt today.
Young people are also considered a “problem” in the domain of culture. Nationalist, especially oppositional, intellectuals commonly assert that youths are the victims of a general moral decline in Egypt that is the by-product of infitah, the economic liberalization launched in the 1970s by the late President Anwar al-Sadat, and the consequent advance of materialism and decline of traditional values. The infitah is also regarded as indelibly linked to normalization with Israel and to the consequent Zionist penetration. Youths are seen as especially susceptible to the corruptions of both Western mass culture and “vulgar” indigenous culture (so called because it is regarded as rooted in “low” cultural values), both of which are said to be outcomes of the infitah and the attendant rise of a boorish and unsophisticated nouveau riche and the decline of noble cultural values. “Vulgar” or “fallen” Egyptian culture fails to meet the nationalist cultural ideal of a synthesis of the high, neoclassicist culture (which, in addition to elite Arab traditions, can also include elements of refined Western culture, such as ballet or Beethoven) and the best of folk cultural values (represented by the stereotypical “authentic Egyptian,” the son of the people, or ibn al-balad). With regard to music, the canonical figures who serve to epitomize ideal national values and to represent the musical high points of Egyptian culture’s “golden age” include the late Umm Kulthum, ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz, and Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab. Cheap Egyptian culture is both “low” (because there is no synthesis with “elevated” culture) and, frequently, contaminated by “cheap” Western mass culture. In their ideological combat against the tidal waves of base culture, the nationalist intelligentsia’s cultural mandarins therefore frequently condemn contemporary musicians who do not conform to canonical values, asserting that they represent the “fall” of Egyptian music from its glory days and describing them as jil al-ghina’ al-habit (the generation of the vulgar song) (al-Najmi 1995). The frequent press attacks on “debased culture” and condemnations of “vulgar” musicians who threaten the authenticity of the Arabic song are responses to the fact that, although many Egyptian youths will publicly assert their admiration for Umm Kulthum and ‘Abd al-Halim, they primarily listen to contemporary, so-called vulgar, Egyptian pop music. Thus the makers of public meaning invoke the shining example of a figure like Umm Kulthum to articulate a critique of the effects of privatization, structural adjustment, and normalization with Israel, and at the same time to put forward a blanket condemnation of contemporary youth culture, which can never equal but can only, at best, imitate past glories. As a result, many of the most popular musicians are consigned to the margins of public space, are never aired on television or radio, and are sometimes forced to resort to underground and illegal releases (see Khalifa 1995, 9; Armbrust 1996) that are marketed in the same cassette kiosks that deal in Danna’s contraband cassettes. This marginalization of a significant component of contemporary musical life in Egypt is yet another symptom of the general absence of autonomous public spaces (whether youth clubs, media, or dance halls) where young people might publicly articulate their desires or demands. The popularity of “vulgar” music, the object of so much thundering from nationalist intellectuals straining to shore up neoclassicist cultural values, can in turn be understood as a sign of a general disaffection on the part of Egyptian youths, of their skepticism concerning the economic and social possibilities awaiting them, and of their lack of interest in the great modernist projects of nationalism and development that were hegemonic until the mid-1970s.
Many members of the nationalist intelligentsia, therefore, are prone to raise the alarm against Egypt’s social fragmentation and the alienation of youths from the once-revered projects of national liberation and development and to cast themselves as youths’ savior. Although intellectuals condemn young people for their cultural predilections, they are occasionally empathetic and assert that young people cannot really be blamed for their cynicism, as the government and the economy offer them so little (see Wahba 1995). Even such sympathetic analyses, however, deny Egyptian youths any agency and depict them as mere victims of government dereliction or dupes of foreign plots. Young people’s own cultural concerns have no role to play in this rescue operation, for it is the national tradition and culture, as understood and articulated by the intelligentsia, that is to be their salvation.