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 ...

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.

Report Typo/Error
Single page

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail


Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular