It is easy to think of Egypt as an ancient and timeless place. But today’s Cairo is a city of young people, and it’s growing fast. They’re mostly under 30 and they’re the new majority in Egypt. People here call them the “Waiting Generation” as they are having trouble finding a place in the country’s stagnant economy. On average, there is a five-year wait for a decent job, even for college graduates.
Wahid Shaheed worked his way through college and expected a government job like his parents. But finding nothing, he now sells mobile phones on the street.
“I have a bachelor’s of commerce. Why are you surprised?” he tells FRONTLINE/World reporter Amanda Pike. “That’s what upsets me. I swear by God. I was educated. I wasted my whole life in education. Pointless. I hang my certificate on the wall, then I spit on it.”
“When you have youth who are educated and unemployed, what will they do with their lives?” asks Soraya Salti, a Jordanian trying to turn Arab youth toward the world of business. She runs a non-profit called Injaz, a spin-off of the American Junior Achievement program. “Either these youth become a burden on our economies or they become an engine of growth and prosperity.”
Its office in Egypt is one of a dozen Injaz programs across the region. They’re working to defuse a demographic time bomb.
“We want to catch them before they're unemployed,” says Salti, “and we want to instill in them the entrepreneurial spirit and the entrepreneurial skill-set so that they can create their employment opportunity. We want to create excitement. And what's the best thing to do, more than create a competition for entrepreneurs?”
The centerpiece of the Injaz program is the annual battle for the best student company. Teams from across Cairo go head-to-head to create the most innovative and profitable business. Think of it as “The Apprentice” for the Middle East college set. But instead of Donald Trump, the judges are Egyptian industry titans looking to develop the business leaders the country sorely needs.
“It is very simple,” says Hanny Elmessiry, one of Egypt’s top young executives, who judged last year’s contest. “It’s going to be the Jeopardy show. Or in Arabic and English: Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
This year, Elmessiry has decided to enter the fray and mentor his own team.
“I am a no-nonsense guy,” he says. “I am here to win. I’m not here to have fun. I’m not here to become number two or number three. We’re here to be number one in everything we do.”
Elmessiry is advising a group of engineering students from one of Egypt’s top universities. They’ve got an idea for a recycling company that they think can take the title this year.
“I think we have an advantage,” says 21-year-old Ahmed Youssry, the team’s CEO. “This is a major thing. You are contributing to our society in a way that makes you money. What else can you do?”
Youssry’s company forms partnerships with local businesses to collect their garbage and recycle it for a profit. As part of their marketing campaign, they’re trying to raise awareness about environmentalism. But the green revolution hasn’t quite caught on here.
Since joining Injaz, Youssry has become consumed with his new passion for business, even when he gets together with friends at a weekend barbeque.
“Creating awareness is part of our vision,” he says. “Changing Egyptian behavior, changing Egyptian identity, so the habit isn’t just to throw stuff away. And I’m the CEO. I swear!”
But his work is proving a tough sell at home.
‘When’s the competition? Is there a cash prize?” his father asks. Youssry answers, “No,” and his father wonders, “So what do you get out of it?”
Youssry’s father thinks the problem with the next generation isn’t a lack of opportunity, but unrealistic expectations.
“At work, I started off at the bottom, as a typist,” he says. “Everybody wanted to be a manager, or a doctor -- nothing less than that. They want a job that fits their image once they graduate.”
“There is a huge gap between our generation and his generation,” Youssry says. “For him, the most important thing is if this has interrupted my school, then it’s not worth it. So I hope I’m going to change his mind soon.”
Eight other Injaz teams are working around Cairo to win the Injaz competition. But they have no idea what their rivals are up to.
“You’re in a fight without knowing who you are fighting,” says Abdul Hameed Ahmed, a law student who is making his first foray into business. “When I told people that I’ll be CEO in the company, some people mocked me. Once people who laughed at me saw the product, they became shareholders.”
His company is pinning its hopes on a unique bag they’re developed that converts into a lap desk.
“From day one of starting the company competition, I have read 15 books on body language, business skills, leadership skills, sales skills, how to organize everything. I can give you titles if you want.”
Across town, Nour Rafaat is hustling to complete her own last-minute sales. The 18-year-old pharmacy student is hoping to impress the Injaz judges with her youth magazine “Arifteha,” or “Did You Know?”
“We called it ‘Did You Know?’ because most of the information in it is new or very few people know about it. But I don’t want to give it all away. You have to see it for yourself.”
Paying back the start-up money to her family and friends isn’t going to be easy. On top of that, she lost her Injaz advisor and more than half of her team. But Nour says she’s not giving up. And she’s only got 48 hours left to turn a profit.
“I don’t think we are ready at all,” she says. “We’re nervous and feel a lot of pressure. We’re selling. It’s true that we’re not selling much. But we are selling. Thank God.”
Still, Nour says the experience she’s gained in the Inhaz competition is especially important. Women here suffer a rate of unemployment four times higher than men.
So another critical part of the Injaz mission is reaching girls early. Salti says that they come into schools early to connect with girls before they become discourages.
“They just give up,” she says. “They decide that I don't even want to be part of this workforce and 40 percent of them become housewives. Just from the start.”
It’s the night before the competition, and all three Injaz teams are scrambling to prepare. Abdul Hameed runs his team like a military operation, planning everything down to the minute. He’s not leaving anything to chance.
Meanwhile, Youssry is rehearsing his presentation in English.
“Welcome to the Forsa show!” he practices. The team is modeled after a game show. He’s intent on getting his message right. He’ll only have one change with the judges. But back home, he still doesn’t know how to win over his father.
“He spent two night without sleep,” his father tells Pike. “He’s been working all night. I just want to know what eats up his time.”
Youssry has an unusual strategy to prepare for the next day.
“I think sometimes I look better without hair,” Youssry says as a barber begins to shave his hair. “I just want tomorrow to be perfect and everything.”
It’s morning on competition day. After weeks of careful preparation, it all comes down to the next few hours. For the first time, all nine teams can size up their rivals. Products range from toys to ecotourism.
Surprisingly, after all the detailed planning, Abdul Hameed’s team is nowhere to be found. As the other teams put the finishing touches on their displays, Hameed finally arrives, having overlooked one crucial detail: parking in downtown Cairo.
The judges arrive, prominent senior executives from some of Egypt’s largest companies. They are not just looking at the bottom line, but also for quick thinking and innovative ideas, and the drive to help build Egypt’s new business class.
Youssry gets one final pep talk before starting his presentation.
“Ladies and gentleman, I’d like to welcome you to our show today – the Forsa show.”
In the middle of his presentation, an unexpected visitor walks in. Youssry’s dad has come to judge his son’s work for himself.
“Do you think your idea can be sustained for a long time?” a judge asks Youssry.
“We not only recycle, we work on the complete value chain – collecting, sorting, transporting, recycling and producing,” Youssry says. “So we collect the whole chain.”
With the presentations over, all the teams can do is wait and wonder while the judges deliberate privately.
“There are no two ideas that are the same,” one judge says. “Each one is different. One is tourism, and another is a brilliant production.”
The judges decide it is time to vote. As the final votes are tallied, the teams gather for the moment of truth.
“In the end, while we feel that we are all winner, “ a judge says, “there can only be one winner. The award for best company goes to … C&P!”
“I told you before!” Hameed exclaims in joy. “This is what I told you before!”
“We've had in other years ambulances coming and picking up the students who are fainting because they didn't win,” Soraya says. “They see it as, ‘Oh, I just didn't make it.’ But they did make it, because now they know how to start entrepreneurial ventures. And these are the skills that will keep them going for life.”
Despite the disappointment in not winning, Nour says she’s already looking forward to competing next year.
For the winner, Hameed, he says he’s got even more start-up idea, and a new attitude about work.
“A job won’t come to your home, ‘Hello, knock knock, good morning. I’m a job.” Of course it won’t happen,” he says. “You have to target, you have to be the job itself.”
Youssry’s team won the award for most responsible company, but in the end, he says he came away with a more important prize.
“I was 100 percent happy to see [my father] walk in during my presentation,” he says.
“I was so happy, I completely changed my opinion about this project,” says Youssry’s father. “I was angry at myself for putting so much pressure on him. I realized that this project is more useful than schoolwork. It's better than university. I never had this experience in my whole life.”
‘Just to have him say we are the best … that’s enough for me even I didn’t win today,” Youssry says. “That was really something. That means a lot.”
I hope also that the young people of Israel can get beyond and work towards a peaceful resolution to the years of war.
I'm proud to be Egyptian and hope to someday go back and retire there and I only wish the best for the country.