Working in Egypt
Carve Out a Place for Yourself in the “Mother of the World”
Cairo is a fascinating window into the contemporary Middle East, the heart of the Islamic world for 1,400 years. It is also a huge, vibrant city, the largest and liveliest city in Africa and the Middle East, with between 16 and 20 million residents. We all know about recent unrest, but many people go about their lives and seek to enhance the lives of their children in a culturally rich country, at home and from abroad.
For the approximately 30,000 Europeans and North Americans here, Cairo has historically been very welcoming and comfortable. To live in Cairo is to be a part of a diverse community of expatriates and educated Egyptians for whom English is the lingua franca. You may want to study Arabic, help refugees learn English, hang out with journalists on leave from Baghdad, or follow the local music scene at bars and nightclubs. Whatever your personality and interests, if you want to get to know Arab culture, Cairo is the place to do it.
During the years I’ve studied here I’ve met dozens of expatriates who have made comfortable lives for themselves in Cairo. They include journalists, editors, web designers, teachers, administrators, consultants, lawyers, and development workers.
Finding a Job
Because Cairo dominates the Egyptian economy, there are few jobs for foreigners outside of the capital, although some jobs may require travel throughout the country (journalism and development work, for instance).
Jobs here fall into two categories: those paid in local currency (the Egyptian pound, or guinay), and those paid in foreign currencies. Expatriates who are paid in guinay typically earn much less than those earning hard currency. An Egyptian-financed nongovernmental organization (NGO), for instance, might pay the equivalent of $450-$750 a month. By contrast, a high school teacher at one of Cairo’s elite private schools might earn between $25,000 and $45,000 a year.
The lucrative jobs that pay in dollars are typically lined up before coming here. Once you arrive in Cairo, you will be limited to searching for jobs that pay in guinay. Costs are low, however, so it is possible to live comfortably on an Egyptian salary.
Rent for a large 2-bedroom apartment in a pleasant neighborhood averages from $250 to $500 a month, a ride on the subway is 13 cents, and lunch at an upscale coffee shop is $3 to $6. A huge bowl of kushari—a filling mixture of pasta, lentils and tomato sauce—costs 25 cents.
Jobhunting Is Networking
The Egyptian job market operates entirely on word of mouth. Although on rare occasions a job listing will appear in one of Cairo’s English-language publications, there are no want ads.
You may want to print business cards with English on one side and Arabic on the other. Egyptians and expatriates here hand out business cards at every opportunity, and you never know who may hear about a job opening that’s right for you. It would also help to have a mobile phone. While knowing Arabic isn’t necessary to work here, taking Arabic classes is a great way to meet other foreign workers and students when you first arrive. Knowing Arabic will also allow you to socialize outside purely upper-class circles.
The American University in Cairo offers full-time Arabic study at the Arabic Language Institute (www.aucegypt.edu). A variety of part-time (and considerably cheaper) courses are available at Kalimat (www.kalimategypt.com) and the International Language Institute (www.arabicegypt.com). If you live in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo that’s popular with expatriate families, the Community Services Association (www.livinginegypt.org) offers classes and opportunities to meet other expatriates.
Expand your networks through local churches, clubs, and cultural organizations. A comprehensive list is available in the back of the print edition of Egypt Today, available at Cairo newsstands.
If you’re an entrepreneur or want to meet members of Cairo’s business community, go to the luncheon meetings at the American Chamber of Commerce (www.amcham.org.eg).
Volunteering is also a good connection to Cairo life. The refugee ministry at St. Andrew’s Church (Tel. 02-57-59-451) is popular with expatriates and always needs volunteers to teach English or computer skills to Sudanese refugees.
Once you’ve checked the job boards at the American Chamber of Commerce and the American University in Cairo (www.aucegypt.edu/), it’s time to start visiting organizations in person and introducing yourself. The four sectors of the economy that employ the most foreigners are education, development (NGOs), publishing, and for-profit businesses.
The best teaching jobs are at Cairo’s foreign-language K-12 private schools. These jobs must be arranged in advance from abroad. The following schools hire foreign teachers, preferably those with experience: Cairo American College (www.cacegypt.org), British International School Cairo (www.bisc.edu.eg), American International School (www.esolonline.com), Maadi British International School (mbisegypt.com). It is also possible to work as a substitute teacher or to register as a tutor with some of these schools.
A number of locally owned and operated schools also seek native English speakers. They pay less than international schools, and they run the gamut in terms of quality.
Teaching English professionally in Cairo usually requires certification or experience, as there are plenty of Egyptians who are qualified to teach English (see Teaching English in Egypt ). Places to teach English include the American University of Cairo’s (AUC’s) continuing education program and English Language Institute, and the British Council. It may also be possible to arrange private tutoring through these organizations or through Cairo’s international schools.
The American University in Cairo (AUC) offers an American curriculum in an English-language environment. Besides hiring university professors from abroad, they also hire professional librarians, writing instructors, and administrators.
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
The largest foreign-based NGOs offer opportunities to arrange a job before arrival. Among the biggest are the USAID and AmidEast. Some expatriates do find jobs with these organizations after their arrival as contractors for work ranging from grant writing to project management.
Many people gain valuable experience in development work and international law through the internships at the UN High Commission for Refugees, but they are unfortunately unpaid.
Canadian citizens can find work with NGOs in Cairo through the Canadian International Development Agency’s International Youth Internship Program, which organizes overseas paid internships for Canadians between 19 and 30 years old.
Job-seekers interested in scholarly organizations will want to consider administrative jobs at the Binational Fulbright Commission and the American Research Center in Egypt (www.arce.org).
Writing and Publishing Work
Cairo’s English-language publications need writers and copy editors, although pay rates are typically low. Working in publishing here can sometimes mean frustration and long hours, but for some it also leads to amazing opportunities.
English-language magazines in Egypt include the American Chamber of Commerce’s Business Monthly (www.amcham.org.eg) and the Al-Ahram Weekly English edition (weekly.ahram.org.eg).
Getting a staff job on these publications usually requires experience; so many Cairo expatriates start as freelancers. Freelance writing is poorly paid in Egypt, where in the highest rates are typically around 8 cents per word. Some freelancers supplement their income by writing for publications abroad as well.
Copyediting is popular with expatriates because of the constant demand for native English speakers with the patience and grammatical knowledge necessary for editing. The publications listed above hire copy editors, as does the AUC Press (www.aucpress.com). Through networking, you will discover many other opportunities to polish the English prose of Egyptian individuals and companies.
General Business Opportunities
If you have skills in public relations, marketing or advertising, you will be particularly desirable to Egyptian employers. Many companies conduct business in English and hire foreign professionals as consultants or full-time employees. Networking is the surest route to these jobs and networking can take social networking forms, but as with all online connections, please do your due diligence before pursuing any offers or leads.
Unusual Job Opportunities
Depending on your skills, you may be able to create unusual opportunities for yourself. One American graduate student makes extra money as a part-time yoga teacher, for instance, and others have been offered employment teaching aerobics at an upscale gym. One trendy bar only hires foreigners. (Employment discrimination is common in Egypt.)
There is also a large expatriate population in neighborhoods like Zamalek and Maadi, where you can sell personal services just as you would anywhere else in the world. Good haircutters and dog sitters could do a thriving part-time business.
With creativity and determination, you can have the adventure of a lifetime working and living in Egypt. Best of luck and welcome to Cairo, Umm al-Dunya—Mother of the World.