Marriage or Broke

Egyptian newlyweds Aisha and Mohammed join celebrations at Cairo's Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011. (AMR AHMAD/AFP/GettyImages) Egyptian newlyweds Aisha and Mohammed join celebrations at Cairo's Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011. (AMR AHMAD/AFP/GettyImages)

Egyptian newlyweds Aisha and Mohammed join celebrations at Cairo's Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011. (AMR AHMAD/AFP/GettyImages)

Since the January 25 revolution in 2011, getting married in Egypt has become a very expensive proposition due to economic instability, soaring inflation and unprecedented unemployment levels. In Egypt, the groom is responsible for all pre-nuptial provisions “from a needle to a rocket"—the smallest to the largest—as a common saying goes, including a gold gift for the bride known as a shabka, housing, electrical appliances, furniture and wedding costs. Increasingly, the bride and her family will bear part of that burden, but traditionally it falls to the groom and his family alone.

While the revolt gave young people some hope for a more prosperous future, they are now “stuck in a downward spiral” as one commentator put it. Malek Adly, a young lawyer at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, told The Majalla that young people in Egypt “no longer intend to marry; they just want to live.”

The high cost of marriage in Egypt is a continual subject of popular discontent. According to “The Cost of Marriage in Egypt” by Diane Singerman and Barbara Ibrahim, Egyptians spent approximately 13 billion Egyptian pounds (37 million US dollars, at approx. 1 Egyptian pound = 29 cents) on marriage costs annually as of 1999.

According to Maia Sieverding, a researcher from the University of California, San Francisco: "The extent of the burden that marriage costs represent for young Egyptians and their families is demonstrated by the fact that, for marriages between 1990 and 2006, it took the average groom 29 months of saving his full salary to cover his 38% of the total marriage costs."

Egypt’s “marriage crisis” grabbed headlines across the country repeatedly, with commentators pointing to economic problems that now look easy compared with today’s burden. The financial burden of marriage has undoubtedly increased since the revolution, although precise figures are difficult to come by. In a country where getting married is as much a part of a successful life as being employed or having a house to live in, the fact that economic conditions are preventing marriage can be an impossible burden to bear.

As medical student Islam Shaarawy told The Majalla, “I remember one day I saw [Egypt-born NASA science team member] Essam Heggy give a talk, and he said in NASA nearly all of their staff are in their twenties or early thirties, because at this age you’re at the height of your creativity. But in Egypt, this age is consumed by getting enough money for marriage, to start a normal life, like any human.”


Yehia Yassin is a twenty-three-year-old living in Cario’s Maadi district. He spends most of his days either surfing the Internet or in coffee shops. Speaking to The Majalla he said: "Currently I have no job, and if I did, undoubtedly the salary wouldn’t be very rewarding, as wages usually range from 800 to 1,500 pounds (115–215 dollars) per month, which is not good money to start a new family with." Yassin has been on a seemingly endless job hunt for quite some time, but as with many young people in Egypt, no jobs have been forthcoming.

In the third quarter of 2013, unemployment in Egypt rose to 13.4 percent of the total workforce, according to Egypt’s official statistics agency, CAPMAS. It was 8.9 percent during the same period in 2010. Even more tellingly, CAPMAS reported in November last year that youth make up 70.8 percent of the total unemployed.

Abdel Rahman Ali, a 24-year-old engineer, graduated two years ago. Like many other young Egyptians, the only position he was able to find was an unpaid internship—in this case, at a large telecommunications firm. He hopes the company will hire him one day.

Speaking to the The Majalla, he said that since the revolution jobs in Egypt have been much harder to come by due to the dearth of available capital and the political turmoil that has gripped the country. This has made most companies and factories unable or unwilling to take on new employees—with some even having to let staff go. According to a recent statement by the Ministry of Trade, 613 factories have been forced to close since the revolution due to financial, security or technical problems.

“Being jobless means no marriage; the two go together. Everything is expensive, but the straw that breaks the camel’s back is the soaring apartment prices—amazingly, they’re crazier than before. To get married with all these troubles is like building castles in the air,” he told The Majalla.

Housing prices in Cairo rose 8 percent in the beginning of 2013, with prices in Cairo’s upmarket Sixth of October and New Cairo areas increasing even more, according to a report released by Jones Lang LaSalle. But mid-range homes across the country have also grown significantly more expensive since the revolution.

“Unfortunately, the country lacks control over the real estate sector, which has caused an increase in housing prices over the last year,” said Adly.

One media graduate, Mohamed Haleem, believes that marriage has turned into an “unattainable dream,” as men need at least 250,000 pounds (35,887 dollars) to cover marriage expenses in his view.

“Over the past three years, the unrest has hit most sectors [of the economy] in Egypt, especially tourism, which let go most of its employees. Those still employed work for low wages due to the absence of oversight in the private sector,” he said.

Unable to find a job after his undergraduate degree, Haleem decided instead to pursue a master’s degree. "I started my master’s hoping for a good job opportunity in the future. Some people say that even people with master’s degrees in Egypt cannot find suitable vacancies, but I still have hope,” he said.

Low wages, high prices

Ahmed Mahmoud, an architect in his mid-twenties, has a longstanding struggle with the exorbitant marriage costs in Egypt. Despite working at a modest architectural firm for over a year, he still hasn’t been able to save enough to marry his fiancée. He proposed three years ago when he was a student, and even though he has worked over the summer vacations, he still hasn’t been able to make enough to afford marrying her.

“Now I’m now supposed to mess around, but it’s like a camel trying to fit through the eye of a needle. My job is not safe and the salary is unrewarding. Two years ago, I never would have thought the doors would be closed on me. But I trust in God that one day my dreams will come true,” Mahmoud said.

Egypt’s consumer inflation rate had risen above 13 percent by November last year, its highest since January 2010. With over a quarter of Egyptians living below the poverty line, food prices have been a particular burden even though they are heavily subsidized by the government.

In September 2013, the Cabinet set a minimum wage of 1,200 pounds (172 dollars) for public workers. By October, Minister of Finance Ahmed Galal had announced that salaries for government employee would range from 1,200 to 3,740 pounds (170 to 535 dollars). The new regulation was supposed to be implemented by January, but so far there has been no movement.

For Mohamed Emad, a 24-year-old employed Egyptian who recently took up work in public relations for a pharmaceutical company, the main barrier to saving for marriage is in the relationship between wages and purchasing power.

For example, his salary is 1,500 pounds (215 dollars), but it is not enough to purchase all the furnishings and household goods he would need to start married life while still covering his day-to-day expenses.

Mohammed Ahmed, a TV scriptwriter, agreed, noting that even the costs of “transportation and daily necessities are rising too quickly for a person to be able to keep money aside for another purpose.”

Given Egypt’s straightened economic circumstances and the effect they are having on private life, statistics released by CAPMAS showing that nearly a third of Egypt’s youth hope to emigrate, are hardly surprising.

“Leaving the country is a convenient response to the ailing economy,” said Adly.

Yassin echoed that sentiment: “Seriously, the only way to get married is to go and start your career abroad.”

Medical student Shaarawy also thinks the future is bleak for Egypt’s youth unless they go abroad: “If anyone wants to marry—which is your most basic right—the huge list of marriage essentials will hit you hard, especially if you don’t have a job.”

"This big disappointment” of not being able to afford to marry “may either push youth to commit violence or leave the country, " he added, expressing his fear that the inability to marry could increase Egypt’s already high rate of sexual offenses.

Laughing ironically, Mohamed Emad told The Majalla: “So all this essentially means that if I want to earn money for my marriage, I need a breadwinner myself.” He has had some help, though. His father helped him purchase the traditional gift of golden jewelry, the shabka for the bride.

Parental assistance with the costs of marriage is common in Egypt. Recently engaged journalist Mohamed Fathy told The Majalla his family had provided him with an apartment in view of his future marriage, but he is still struggling to purchase all the appliances and furniture. He and his fiancée are both trying to furnish their new flat as modestly as they can, in the hope that they can marry sooner.

Even with help, however, Yassin believes that a new graduate who wishes to marry will need to save for at least five years to have enough money to bear the costs. But Adly disagrees, saying, “If a person depends solely on his own salary to get married, I’d bet he would need no less than ten years.”

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