* More people out of work than before 2011 revolt
* Military joins civilian training effort
* Former army chief Sisi frontrunner for presidency
By Shadia Nasralla
CAIRO, May 20 Since toppling the Muslim
Brotherhood from power last year, the Egyptian army has turned
its substantial economic firepower on another perceived threat
to the country's stability: unemployment.
Putting to use a manufacturing portfolio that stretches from
pasta and refrigerators to tablet computers, the military
announced to great fanfare in April that it was offering
vocational training to jobseekers in a new joint venture with
the civilian government.
It was part of a push to tackle joblessness, and evidence of
a more prominent role for the army's economic muscle, with its
former chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the runaway favourite to
become president in May 26-7 elections.
Egypt's unemployment crisis could make or break his
presidency. The 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak was largely
fuelled by anger at the grim prospects facing young Egyptians
unable to find work, afford their own home and get married.
Since then, as foreign investors and tourists shied away
from the country of 85 million, the job crisis has only got
"The problem is a time bomb," said Mahmoud El-Sherbiny. He
heads a government industrial training scheme tapping for the
first time the Ministry of Military Production.
"If it does not work it will blow up in front of everyone's
faces," he said. "They don't want to be faced by another
revolution within the next year."
"RESPONSIBILITIES TOWARDS SOCIETY"
Though it may appear to be a drop in the ocean - the scheme
aims to train 100,000 youths in skills needed by industry - it
shows the army's readiness to back government and its evolving
role in shaping domestic policy.
The beneficiaries include those at a heavily guarded complex
run by the Ministry of Military Production on the outskirts of
Cairo - young men and women in blue coats receiving training to
be mechanics, industrial machine operators or to build circuit
Accompanying journalists during a visit there in April, the
State Minister for Military Production, Major General Ibrahim
Younis Ismail Ragab, described the project as part of his
ministry's "responsibilities towards society".
The ministry sits at the heart of an army-controlled sector
of the economy likened by critics to a state within a state.
Some analysts estimate its financial empire could amount to
as much as 40 percent of the economy. Sisi told Reuters in a May
15 interview it was no more than 2 percent.
Since Sisi toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi last
July, following mass protests against his rule, the army's
economic role has become even more apparent.
The military has positioned itself as the channel for some
of the billions of dollars flowing into Egypt from the Gulf, for
Sherbiny said the Ministry of Military Production had never
before agreed to open its facilities to a civilian-run training
But it is not doing it for free. The United Arab Emirates is
bankrolling the scheme, part of billions of dollars in aid sent
to Egypt by Gulf states hostile to the Brotherhood, and the
civilian authorities pay Military Production for their services.
"The (project) adds to the image of the military as Egypt's
guardians - not just in terms of politics and security, but
social-economically as well - the only institution capable of
addressing Egypt's multiple problems," said Oliver Coleman,
senior analyst at Maplecroft risk research company.
"The military may have the economic clout to improve youth
employment in some sectors - manufacturing primarily. But in
terms of the overall economy, the impact will be extremely
According to official rates, more than 13 percent of the
Egyptian workforce are unemployed. This figure, higher than the
8.9 percent on the eve of the 2011 revolt, masks the wider
problem of underemployment in a low-wage economy. Official
figures rarely tell the full story in a country where much
business activity goes under the radar.
A SPARK FOR REVOLT?
Sisi has listed unemployment as a priority, but has given
little detail on how he will tackle it. He is eyed with
suspicion by some young Egyptians who see him as a return to the
army-backed order against which they rebelled in 2011.
"Now another military man will rule," said Abdelrahman, a
scowling 20-year-old at a street cafe in Cairo. "If he makes one
mistake as president, the entire people will revolt against
Like many young Egyptians idling in the coffee shops,
Abdelrahman is unemployed and lives at home. He had a job at a
clothing store that paid him 800 Egyptian pounds ($110) a month
but was sacked for folding a shirt the wrong way. "Of course I'm
angry," he said.
The government's new training scheme aims to address a
skills mismatch partly rooted in a state policy that has for
decades offered free tertiary education to those with adequate
grades, producing a surplus of accountants and engineers who
often end up driving taxis.
The Industrial Training Council (ITC), which belongs to the
Industry Ministry, held a job fair earlier this year offering
20,000 jobs in the industrial sector, but only 7,000 people
came, an ITC official said.
Some believe the Ministry of Military Production may be
harnessed even more widely to help address the mismatch.
"The best welders in Egypt are known to have come from those
(military production) centres," said Sameh Seif Elyazal, a
former army general who now heads a political research centre
and says he is often in contact with Sisi.
"Military production is part of the entire solution."
With perhaps a fifth of graduates unemployed, changing
mindsets could be a harder nut to crack.
Many youths, such as 22-year old engineering student Mohamed
Abdel Kader, refuse to take up blue-collar jobs like those in
the military scheme, because they are holding out for something
to match their education.
"There's no way - I study for five years and then do
something else? I must have an appropriate job," he said.
($1 = 7.1126 Egyptian Pounds)
(Editing by Tom Perry and Will Waterman)