CAIRO | Ask a young Egyptian man what he wants from the revolution, and he will say “freedom.” Ask him why, and he’s very likely to say, “So I can get married.”
An underlying drive of youthful protesters who have clamored for political reform in Egypt — and in other Arab states — is a desire to change a society that expects a man to have money before he marries.
No one claims this drive has been the sole cause of the “Nile Revolution” that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak, but many here say that financial freedom that allows them to marry forms an integral part of the new democratic country they hope will emerge.
During Egypt’s 18-day popular uprising, the familiar chants of “The people demand the fall of the regime!” were joined by chants of “We want to get married!”
The root of the problem is not the cost of a dowry or the wedding party. Egyptians say the problem is a corrupt and inequitable financial system that leaves the unconnected with few chances for advancement.
Tamer Sayz, 28, met the woman of his dreams in college — a young pharmacy student who “had everything I wanted.”
“She knew my soul,” he says.
But he never proposed marriage. “I wasn’t working at the time, so I backed off from going to talk to her father,” he says. “In Egypt, you must have more money to marry.”
Mahmoud, a 25-year-old financial analyst who participated in the demonstrations, says middle-class Egyptian men need to raise as much as 13 times their annual income to afford to marry.
“[If you want to marry], your parents support you, or you borrow money from the bank,” he says, adding with a laugh, “The other option is to steal.”
Most Egyptians wait long after turning 30 to marry, and “it makes people unhappy,” Mahmoud says.
This unhappiness is not exclusive to Egypt; it permeates the Arab world. Young people across the region uniformly complain that there are not enough jobs, and, therefore, there is not enough money for marriage and families.
Navtej Dhillon, as a Brookings Institution fellow and director of the Middle East Youth Initiative in 2009, identified the problem as a growing source of unrest in the Arab world.
“It’s important to understand the significance of marriage in most Middle Eastern societies,” she said in a 2009 interview with PBS. “The family is a cornerstone. Your rite of passage to adulthood is secured by marriage. And sexual relationships are only really approved and remain legitimate in the Middle East within the institution of marriage.”
Think tanks, nongovernmental organizations and institutions such as the World Bank have reported that more than 50 percent of the Arab world’s population is under 30 years old, and high unemployment is cited frequently as a key factor for unrest in the region.
In Yemen, the region’s poorest country, young men complain that marriage is too expensive for recent college graduates contending with a 35 percent unemployment rate.
“I’ll wait until there is a sale,” joked Khaled al-Hilaly, a 31-year-old Yemeni journalist who is frustrated by his inability to afford marriage. In the nation’s capital, Sanaa, young men from the university seeking to marry need at least $5,000 — almost four times the average income — and that is before the cost of the wedding, the home and the traditional gold for the bride, he said.
“Parents, especially fathers, believe that the more money the husband pays to marry their daughter, the more respect he gives her during the marriage,” said Mr. al-Hilaly in an e-mail.
What’s more, the Arab world’s linkage of jobs, money and marriage has long been the focus U.S. efforts to reform autocratic regimes in the region.
In a confidential U.S. diplomatic cable recently published by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats noted that discontent in Libya in 2009 was largely financial, but officials expressed optimism that economic reforms would appease growing unrest among the population.
“The fact that many young men are forced by lack of means to delay marriage is another pressing economic issue in a conservative society, in which marriage is a key social anchor and indicator of status,” reads the leaked cable.
For Egyptians, the revolution is over for now, and many have high hopes that their emerging new leadership will create more jobs and root out corruption. But former protesters also say that democracy includes financial opportunity.
“Egypt is at the beginning of a democracy, which will allow everyone in the country to have the same opportunities,” says Mahmoud. “It will allow everyone to be the one who wins. Why? Because [advancement] will depend on his performance, not his relationships.”
Other Egyptians say change will come from not only from a new government, but also the developing post-revolution society.
Gihan Abouzeid, an Egyptian researcher who focuses on gender and religious issues, says the new government’s first priority should be to provide social justice, which includes jobs for young people. But, she says, the very fact that the people came together to topple the regime should spark a change in Egyptian society itself.
Currently, a man in Egypt is often required to own an apartment and furniture and have enough cash to throw a large wedding, buy his bride gold jewels and immediately provide for his future family. In the future, Ms. Abouzeid says families may rethink marriage customs.
“With more political participation, with more space for everyone, people will have the tendency to be simpler,” she said in a cafe near Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Egyptian uprising.
Absent a changed society, or more financial opportunities, Ms. Abouzeid said young activists already have proved that they can mold the future of Egypt.
“I think they should start their own revolution,” she said. “They should insist.”