CAIRO // Maged Shereen graduated a year ago from one of Egypt's best universities with a degree in economics but has still been rejected for every one of the scores of jobs for which he has applied. Even finding an unpaid position has been almost impossible, he said.
A shortage of job vacancies, uncertainty about the start of his mandatory military service and a lack of work experience have all turned potential employers off, said a frustrated Mr Shereen, who graduated from the American University in Cairo.
"My life is really on hold," he said.
Now Mr Shereen idles away the average workday hanging out with friends at a coffee shop or restaurant, joining millions of unemployed youths who have even lower hopes because they went to less prestigious universities or dropped out of failing high schools.
Unemployment and underemployment, particularly among men and women between the ages of 18 and 30, is, by the government's own assessment, Egypt's greatest challenge. The National Democratic Party (NDP), which dominates political life and is headed by the country's president, Hosni Mubarak, has pledged to cut unemployment by a third in five years from the current official level of 9.5 per cent.
Critics say the party's goals are unrealistic and do not account for severe deficiencies in the education system that keep unemployment high even as the economy grows.
The government's figures are based on a low estimate for the number of men and women who are unemployed or actively looking for work, and count those who work only once a week as "employed", said Ahmed el Naggar, a researcher at Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-funded think tank in Cairo.
"Any government or state that wants to diminish the unemployment should have correct data about its size," he said.
Mr el Naggar estimates the "real" unemployment rate is closer to 25 per cent, similar to the 24 per cent "jobless rate" for male Egyptians calculated in this year's UN Human Development Report.
"While the current young generation is the best educated ever, this has not translated into better employment opportunities," the UN report said. A surge in births in the 1980s and 1990s has meant young adults aged between 18 and 29 now make up a quarter of Egypt's population.
Today, years of university work go to waste, said Mahmoud Ibrahim, a computer science student at Misr University in Cairo who expects to graduate next spring.
"When you graduate, you go to the job and say what you learned in the university, and they say 'we don't make anything of it'," he said.