Egyptians are out on the streets expressing pent up anger about their daily lives, like rampant unemployment and low wages. About 40 percent of Egyptians live on around $2 a day.
This leads to one of the biggest reasons for social anxiety in Egypt: many people can’t afford to get married. It’s been a cause for concern in Egypt for a while.
When there aren’t massive protests in Cairo, this is a pretty typical scene: a cafe full of men sitting around, smoking water pipes, playing dominoes and doing not much else.
The café is called Casino Shubra. The name’s pretty much a tease here in the low-income neighborhood of Shubra. Though one man sitting alone in the back of the café, nursing a cup of tea, is thinking a lot about his luck.
Tayeb Muhammed is 31 years old, but his sagging face makes him look more like 40. Each day he works 12 hours at a restaurant making kabobs, earns a bit less than $3, and then comes here.
“I don’t have enough money to get married. I always ask myself, why is this happening?” Muhammed said. “Is it because I have been working for ten years and I did it all wrong? Is it because everything is so expensive? Is it the society? I don’t know the answer.”
The answer is that marriage is expensive — more expensive than you’d think in a poor country like Egypt.
“He has to pay some money, pay jewelry, gold or diamond, depending on the social class,” Mediha Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, said. “And she has to prepare the house for residence, furniture… so it is costly on both sides.”
Even the poorest Egyptians are supposed to do all of this, as part of Egyptian culture. But Safty said many people these days just can’t.
“People are getting poorer. The cost of living is getting higher. And at the same time, there is no change in the salaries. The gap is wide.”
Men who want to marry are expected to provide the apartment. But the cost of housing in Cairo has skyrocketed. Even an electrical engineer like 38-year-old Muhsin Salah, who makes the princely sum of $500 a month, can’t afford an apartment. He recently asked a girl’s father for permission to marry his daughter.
“The first question the [her] father ask[ed] me, do you have apartment? You have a good salary? You have a good job? This is the first question [he] ask[ed] me,” Salah said.
Salah had to break off the proposal. Now he spends his evenings smoking sweet apple tobacco in street side cafes.
Tayeb Muhammed, from the café in Shubra, also proposed to someone once. She was even willing to chip in on the marriage costs. But he decided to call it off.
“I couldn’t let a woman pay for the expenses,” Muhammed said. “Her reaction was, don’t be afraid, I can help you, we can get married. But it would be too shameful for me.”
For some, the shame turns deadly. Last year Egyptian papers reported a 31 year old man hanged himself after his fiancé’s family said they’d call off their marriage because he didn’t have enough money to buy a new apartment.
This isn’t just an Egyptian problem. Young people throughout the Middle East are delaying marriage for similar reasons. A recent Brookings Institution survey found that a generation ago, around 60 percent of twenty-something men in the region were married. Now it’s 50 percent.
Egypt has been looking for solutions. Sociology Professor Mediha Safty said the government here has been building more affordable housing for young couples. Charities put on mass weddings for free, and donate household appliances to new couples.
Many, though, have given up on the dream of getting married. Including Tayeb Muhammed, who slumped in his chair at the coffee shop.
“I have no goal,” Muhammed said. “I live just to eat sleep work. Eat sleep work. I have no one to go back to.”
With no ambitions, little pay and no one to return home to at night, you can understand why Muhammed is frustrated. Multiply that by millions more frustrated young Egyptian men, and you can understand why so many Egyptians have given up their daily routines this week to march for a better life.
The way they see it, they don’t have that much to lose.