Light at the End of the Tunnel in Egypt’s Marriage Crisis?

Navtej Dhillon and
Navtej Dhillon Former Brookings Expert
Ragui Assaad
Ragui Assaad Former Brookings Expert, Regional Director, West Asia and North Africa at Population Council

November 23, 2008

Originally published under the title “Good News on Marriage Crisis.”

The promise of marriage should be a time marked with happiness and joy for many of our young people and their families across the Middle East. Instead, today, this promise has turned into social anxiety and financial stress. With high inflation and widespread youth unemployment, it is not surprising that marriage has become delayed: nearly 50% of men in the Middle East between the ages of 25 and 29 years are unmarried, giving the Middle East the lowest rates of marriage among developing regions.

Despite these alarming statistics, there is good news for young Egyptians and their families. In our study just released by the Middle East Youth Initiative, a joint project of the Wolfensohn Center for Development and the Dubai School of Government, we demonstrate that the long-term trend of delayed marriage among young men in Egypt has in fact reversed in recent years. For young men born in 1976, the median age of marriage stands currently at 26 years – a noteworthy decline from their earlier cohort.

Why this unexpected decline? If the result is good news for the public, there is even better news for policymakers. Evidence shows that government reforms carried out in the housing sector back in the mid 1990s have begun to bear fruit in the marriage market. These reforms, which began under President Sadat and continued through Law 4 of 1996, have provided young people with an opportunity to acquire rental housing without the need to accumulate large amounts of capital – a major obstacle for prospective grooms as they prepare for marriage.

The cost of housing is the exclusive responsibility of the groom in Egypt and typically can make up about one third of the costs of marriage. Since the 1960s, the landlord-tenant relationship was bound by tight rent controls and high protection of existing tenants, making it hard for new entrants to acquire housing. Hence, the only options available for young home-seekers were to build it themselves, purchase it outright, or pay substantial amounts of upfront cash in the form of key money or “advance rent.”

With the absence of easy and accessible mortgage markets, accumulation of large amounts of housing capital has been extremely challenging – if not impossible – for young men and their families. Full of aspirations for independent living after marriage but faced with an inflexible and unaffordable housing market, young people have been left with one solution: to delay married life, and thus their transition to full adulthood.

Today, the impact of the 1996 reforms shows that smart policy can make housing, and therefore, marriage more affordable. With legislation calling for lower upfront costs, built in incentives for owners to “free up” additional rental units, and flexibility for landlords to adjust contractual agreements, the effect has been a reversal in the “delayed marriage” trend.

Still, the devastating rockslide at Moqattam Hill is a clear indication that serious attention is needed to address the desperate state of low-income housing in Egypt. However, the simple fact that the government has made housing access and affordability a priority represents a step in the right direction, one that hopefully paves the way to improved living conditions for the nation’s poor.

For more on this topic, please refer to the Middle East Youth Initiative’s Policy Outlook: “Did Housing Policy Reforms Curb the Delay in Marriage Among Young Men in Egypt?” by Ragui Assaad and Mohamed Ramadan.