Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Egyptian demonstrators hold their national flag during demonstration in Cairo on Jan. 27, 2011 demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. (AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptian demonstrators hold their national flag during demonstration in Cairo on Jan. 27, 2011 demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. (AFP/Getty Images)

Enough! Why thousands of young Arabs have taken to the streets in protest Add to ...

When Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate forced to sell vegetables on the streets of his hometown in Tunisia to support his family, set himself on fire on Dec. 17, he could not have known that his death would launch the so-called Jasmine Revolution now unfurling across the Middle East.

More related to this story

Humiliated because of his menial job, harassed by corrupt officials demanding bribes and residing in a repressive state ruled by a dictator, Mr. Bouazizi was living a bleak existence that was no different from that of millions of other young people in the region. But his suicide became a catalyst for a generation that has said "enough" and spontaneously taken to the streets to demand change from the assorted collection of presidents-for-life, kings and sheiks who have ruled them for ages.

In Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and Yemen, the violent demonstrations of the past weeks are largely driven by the stifled generation of the Arab baby boom: 100 million young people 15 to 29 years old who make up 30 per cent of the Middle East's population. Their hopes and ambitions have been frustrated by corruption, high unemployment, lack of political freedom, soaring costs of living and growing income inequality - and their leaders have been unable and unwilling to invest in solutions to these problems.

The protests have come as a shock to many in the West, who are accustomed to viewing the region through the prism of Islamist terrorism and the threat its young people pose to global security. Yet the chain of unrest was set off not by a suicide bomber shouting, "Allah u Akbar," but by an underemployed young man who harmed no one but himself.

To drive home the point, protesters in Yemen wore pink, rather than the green associated with political Islam, to demonstrate their peaceful intentions. Whether they succeed in coming weeks remains to be seen.

Similar protests in 2009 in Iran were greeted the world over by rapturous expectations of a Twitter-powered Green Revolution. Yet Tehran weathered that wave through a brutal crackdown and the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains in power today.

Still, the fact that so many people were inspired to act by Mr. Bouazizi and not a religious fanatic such as Osama bin Laden speaks volumes about the aspirations of young people in a region whose human and economic potential lie largely untapped and who present both a daunting challenge and a huge opportunity not just for their respective countries but for the world.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the young people in the streets are far better educated than their parents.

Seventy-five per cent of Arab youth have enrolled in secondary education - and in places such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, more women are going to university than men, according to figures from the Middle East Youth Initiative at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C.

Yet many Arab leaders continue to invest in upgrading military hardware and expanding security services rather than economic development, a structural holdover both from the Cold War and the post-9/11 era, during which the West was preoccupied with combatting Islamist violence.

Yet it is these young people who will be expected to solve the regional policy crises that their parents' generation has failed to grapple with, such as religious extremism, the Arab-Israeli peace crisis and dwindling oil reserves, and for now they have taken matters into their own hands.

"It is exciting what is happening; first what is important to note is the West is completely irrelevant," said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for regional security for IISS Middle East, a think tank in Bahrain. "They are not encouraged or supported by the West. It looks like they are just demonstrating for their own reasons. People are driven by very legitimate and genuine economic and social grievances, not by an ideological agenda. The way those protests are being organized, it is not by your mosque or the old-school socialist party, but something different."

Some Arab leaders appear to be taking note. In Algeria, where citizens rioted over soaring food prices this month, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika may shuffle the cabinet. Meanwhile, King Abdullah of Jordan, facing rallies demanding economic and political changes, has urged Parliament to speed up economic reforms.

It's the economy, stupid

If there is a single spark that has ignited the protests, from Rabat to Cairo to Sanaa, it is unemployment. The jobless rate for young Arabs is 25 per cent, compared with a world average of 14 per cent, according to the Brookings Institution. Yemen, the poorest Arab country, has been rocked with protests all week with youth activists, civil-society groups, and Islamists marching in the streets and demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power since 1978.

An astonishing 75 per cent of Yemen's population is under the age of 25 and yet the unemployment rate among them is nearly 40 per cent. "The economy is bad, people cannot read or write, there is huge poverty. Yes, this is his fault," said Khaled al Anes, a prominent lawyer and human-rights activist speaking from Sanaa, the capital. "Saleh controls everything and so it is his fault. He puts his relatives in the government and supports people who violate human rights. I think, after what happened in Tunisia, people here have started to think that we could do the same thing. It is hopeful."

Mr. al Anes was jailed last weekend for protesting at Sanaa University against the detention of another activist, Tawakul Karman, who was thrown in prison on charges of inciting unrest. Only a couple of hundred joined Mr. al Anes at the Sanaa University campus, but the reaction of the police sprung many more into action.

"They thought if they arrested Karman or me we would stop and the situation will calm down. But it has not happened. Many are ready to spend time in jail for Yemen to be better for our children. We will ask Saleh to resign and leave like Ben Ali. We will sit in front of Sanaa University every day."

But Mr. Saleh, who once described governing Yemen as "dancing with snakes," is considered key to America's objectives in the region. A WikiLeaks cable revealed that he has allowed the U.S. to launch drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets in a country considered the newest battle line against Islamic extremism.

Anwar al-Awlaki, the fanatical cleric who inspired the Fort Hood massacre in Texas in November, 2009, is based in Yemen, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has killed 22 Yemeni soldiers so far this year.

Mr. al Anes insists that the threat is overblown. "America is afraid. But they don't understand Yemeni society and mentality. Here, socialists and Islamists marry each other. Yemenis have a middle opinion. The Yemeni President and government tries to make the international community fearful of al-Qaeda so that the President can control the country."

No more sinecures

In Morocco, the youth unemployment rate is so high - 37 per cent - that university graduates established the National Association for Unemployed Graduates to address the problem.

Wadia Ait Hamza, 29, walks past the Moroccan Parliament building nearly every day and sees the same group of protesters. "They are all graduates of French literature, the arts, and they can't find jobs," he said in an interview from Rabat. "They are such a common sight, people are not stopping to look at them any more. It is a scene of daily life in the capital."

Postsecondary schools in the region are set up to create government bureaucrats and universities are not preparing their students for the global economy, says Navtej Dhillon, co-author of Generation in Waiting, a book published by the Brookings Institution. "Training remains largely divorced from the needs of the private sector; not only are curricula outdated, but there are few instances in which private-sector representatives play a role in curricula or program design," he wrote.

Mr. Hamza, deputy director of student affairs at the Rabat School of Governance and Economics, knows the predicament all too well. The Moroccan government urges its graduates to find work in the private sector, but many do not want short-term contracts and the uncertainty associated with for-profit companies, he says.

"It is seen as, how you say, a luxury to work for the state. It is seen as stability because no one can fire you. I am trying to hire three people at my school, but it is difficult to find people with fire because they want to look at the clock."

The lynchpin

Egypt's youth also covet public-sector jobs, but the pay is so bad that many government employees - such as school teachers - take a year off to work in garment factories, where they earn a slightly higher wage.

Of course, Egypt isn't Morocco. The problems of unemployment and economic backwardness here are sharpened by the country's strategic importance in the region. The secular regime is considered a bulwark against Islamist terrorism and an important U.S. ally because it is one of two Arab states - the other is Jordan - that recognize the state of Israel.

That's why the White House took a much keener inetrest when, emboldened by their Tunisian bretheren, Egyptians dared to begin challenging President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule this week.

Security forces confronted protesters with tear gas and water cannons on the streets, bridges and public squares of the capital Cairo and major cities such as Alexandria, Suez and Assuit until a curfew was imposed Friday night.

Protesters, some of whom are college graduates have defied the ban against demonstrations under the emergency laws that have governed the country since Mr. Mubarak came to power.

They may believe they have little to lose: those with a secondary education or above made up 95 per cent of unemployed youth in 2006, the last year for which statistics are available. "Change is the solution," the front page of the opposition newspaper Al-Wafd declared on Thursday.

The demonstrations have been leaderless, although the Egyptian opposition figure and Nobel laureate Mohamed El Baradei returned to Cairo from his home in Vienna, promising to join the protesters only to be placed immediately under house arrest on Friday.

As if chronic unemployment weren't a depressing enough fact of life for young Egyptians, their troubles are compounded by another problem common in the Middle East: the high costs of marriage.

The cost of a wedding in Egypt is about $9,000 (U.S.) in a country where the per-capita income is $3,700, according to a report by Brookings and the Dubai School of Government.

The groom and his family are expected to pay for the reception, housing, furniture, appliances and gifts of gold to the bride. In the West, couples usually accumulate material goods over years, but in the Arab world the groom must have a household prepared before a girl's family agrees to marry her off.

It is a significant issue because in Arab culture men and women are considered adults by society only after they are married. Until then, they must live at home as children even if they are in their 40s.

In oil-rich states such as the United Arab Emirates, rulers pay for mass weddings to encourage their young citizens to settle down and become productive members of society. Large wedding halls are rented for the occasion, men and women are segregated into two rooms and the catering, clothes and even dowries are paid for by the sheiks of Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

The Egyptian government, however, like many others without reserves of oil, cannot afford such largesse, particularly since 20 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Why now?

One question that remains is why the unrest is spreading now, considering the grievances of the Arab world have been around almost as long as their unpopular rulers.

Technology may be one part of the answer. Al Jazeera, the region's most popular satellite channel, has endlessly broadcast jubilant and passionate scenes of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution to living rooms of ordinary Arabs, while social networking sites have been important for Egyptians in getting their messages heard.

Young Arabs are also far more connected to the world thanks to mass tourism, and they are keenly aware of what their societies lack compared with their counterparts in the Western world. They expect a higher standard of living, such as good houses, a car and other material goods that their parents had. Arab women are becoming used to financial independence and working outside the home.

But a full answer may be elusive. "I don't think political science is going to explain what is happening," Mr. Hokayem said. "I think psychology is most important. That, in a way, is indiscernible for political analysts."

In Ryszard Kapuscinski's celebrated book Shah of Shahs, which chronicles the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, there is a moment when an ordinary man in a crowd of protesters is approached by a truncheon-wielding policeman who shouts and orders him to leave. The man does not budge. The policeman backs off.

"We don't know whether the policeman or the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened," Mr. Kapuscinski wrote. "The man has stopped being afraid - and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution. Here it starts."

Hamida Ghafour is an author and journalist who has reported extensively from the Muslim world. She is currently based in the Netherlands.

Single page

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories