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Egypt’s marriage crisis: Sons and daughters too broke to be married, waiting for adulthood

Ahmed Gamal, a 24-year-old political activist who lives in Assiut, Egypt, says he's very concerned about his marriage prospects. "It's not a new Egypt until I have enough money to get married," he said. Tara Todras-Whitehill / for NBC News

ASSIUT, Egypt – A 24-year-old political activist working ten-hour shifts at an accounting firm in Assiut, one of the poorest areas of Egypt, says he can explain why his country hasn’t had a true revolution.

“It’s not a new Egypt until I have enough money to get married,” said Ahmed Gamal, laughing with friends who have started placing bets on who will be the first among them to tie the knot. “It’s a country of boys waiting to be men.”

Gamal is the local director for the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the groups that helped organize the 2011 protests that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. He said that aside from fighting what he calls “the return of the old regime,” saving enough money for marriage is his generation’s biggest battle. But in a country choked by a crippled economy, inflation, and soaring unemployment, many Egyptians simply can’t.

According to American University professor Diane Singerman, a typical marriage in Egypt cost around $6,000 in the late 1990s – a daunting sum given the average per capita income was $1,490 in 2000.

In 2006, a survey found marriage costs had increased 25 percent. For those living below the poverty line in areas like Assiut, a region of 3.5 million on the Nile approximately 225 miles south of Cairo, marriage expenses are 15 times annual household costs. 

“I found a girl I wanted to marry…but it’ll take me around seven years to save enough money to propose,” Gamal said, calculating that he needs to save about $15,000.

“But she can’t wait for me, and will accept another proposal," Gamal lamented. "So now, I’m crying over her. It’s all impossible in Egypt.”

Egyptian women gather outside a university in Assiut, Egypt. Many young people are concerned about their marriage prospects in the new post-revolution Egypt. Tara Todras-Whitehill / for NBC News

Traditionally, approximately two-thirds of total marriages costs are covered by the groom and his family. Those costs go far beyond the cost of the actual wedding: they include the couple’s housing (parents often purchase an apartment, or put down enough to cover rent for a long period), jewelry for the bride, and electronic appliances like TVs and refrigerators. Women are expected to purchase less expensive furnishings and lighter elements of décor.

Rania Salem, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies the consequences of high marriage costs in Egypt, said that a groom on average has to save his entire earnings for about three and a half years to finance his share of costs, while the average bride has to save for six months for hers. But given the paucity of well-paid jobs now, men have to wait longer. 

For women, the process can be frustratingly passive; singlehood beyond a certain age is a ticket to social stigmatization.

“Everyone is struggling right now, so it’s hard to find a man my family will say has enough money,” said Salma Hamdeen, a 24-year-old teacher. Her family has already started accumulating her “gehaz,” a trousseau consisting of kitchenware and linens for her marital home. “But I want to marry soon, I want to be a woman…if you aren’t married by your late twenties, people will think something is wrong with you.” 

Chronic state of 'waithood'

Across Assiut, disintegrated campaign posters and faded revolutionary graffiti stand as crumbling relics of a revolution gone by, a grim museum charting little more than unmet expectations. 

With a chronically bloated public sector, Egypt doesn’t have enough government jobs for a flood of graduates who are otherwise unqualified for private sector jobs. The country’s public education system remains deplorable, it ranked last in primary education on the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Competitiveness Report. And unless one has "wasta," connections to get a job, the grim cycle of unfulfilled potential is rarely broken.

“Of course, I want my children to be educated, get a job, have a nice life,” said 56-year-old Galal Abdeen. He is trying to find a wife for his son, Abdullah, who works at a rundown hotel in Assiut. “But they have to get married first. He’s not a man, she’s not a woman, until then.” 

In Egypt's conservative society, marriage is also the institutional and cultural gateway for societal recognition and sexual activity, Singerman explained. She has coined the phenomenon “waithood” to describe the prolonged adolescence and purgatory that Egyptians linger in until they have enough money to marry.

“If young people continue to feel like perpetual adolescents – disempowered, excluded from society, and economically vulnerable –the region will suffer economically and politically,” said Singerman, noting that 60 percent of the region’s population is under the age of 25.

Some analysts speculate “waithood” contributes to an even more frustrated and disempowered generation in waiting, one that proved a pivotal force behind the country’s initial uprising. 

Young people in a cafe in Assiut, Egypt. Tara Todras-Whitehill / for NBC News

“The inability to marry is an overlooked crisis that keeps escalating in Egypt,” said Madiha El-Shafty, a professor at the American University in Cairo. “It’s not hard to understand how this mass frustration can lead to intense religiosity, and how it can contribute to the country’s rampant issue of sexual harassment.”

“But it’s a cultural problem at the end of the day,” she said. “And that’s why it’s hard. You need to change the minds of people, to lower and change marital expectations.... Why do parents place so much pressure? Why do lives only begin at marriage?”

When marriage, and specifically the cost of housing, becomes more affordable, Singerman said “waithood” may be alleviated. But without a political will to address Egypt’s systemic economic and social woes, Egyptians like Gamal, who have been protesting the past three years for social justice and dignity, will remain in societal limbo unable to command their own destinies.

“The post-uprising moment was a hopeful one, with a lot of potential for young people who saw their marital trajectories tied up in the country’s political and economic circumstances,” said Salem, the professor.

“They were hopeful that public housing and other services would be reformed, which would help them in the marriage project,” she said. “But there’s much less hope for improved circumstances today.”

'We need our own revolution'

Back in Assiut, while sleepy cafes throbbed with scores of young men all dressed up with nowhere to go, Gamal explained his plans to open a restaurant with his friend (who is also trying to get married). It's a risky endeavor, he conceded, but one he hopes will be profitable.

“When you live in Egypt, you learn to wait. But the young men of Egypt…we need our own revolution,” he laughed nervously, sitting in a café plastered with portraits of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s military chief who is both hailed as an arbiter of Egypt’s security and criticized for ushering in a period of hyper-nationalism.

“Though if the past few years proved anything…it’s that we’re not very good at revolutions.”

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This reporting was made possible in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. 

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