Face of Mideast unrest: young and hungry for jobs
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Just days before fleeing Tunisia, the embattled leader went on national television to promise 300,000 new jobs over two years.
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak did much the same Saturday as riots gripped Cairo and other cities: offering more economic opportunities in a country where half the people live on less than $2 a day.
The pledges-under-siege have something else in common: an acknowledgment that the unprecedented anger on Arab streets is at its core a long-brewing rage against decades of economic imbalances that have rewarded the political elite and left many others on the margins.
The startling speed — less than two months since the first protests in Tunisia — underscored the wobbly condition of the systems used by some Arab regimes to hold power since the 1980s or earlier. The once formidable mix of economic cronyism and hard-line policing — which authorities sometime claim was needed to fight Islamic hard-liners or possible Israeli spies — now appears under serious strain from societies pushing back against the old matrix.
Mubarak and other Arab leaders have only to look to Cairo’s streets: a population of 18 million with about half under 30 years old and no longer content to have a modest civil servant job as their top aspiration.
One protester in Cairo waved a hand-drawn copy of his university diploma amid clouds of tear gas and shouted what may best sum up the complexities of the domino-style unrest in a single word: Jobs.
“They are taking us lightly and they don’t feel our frustration,” said another protester, homemaker Sadat Abdel Salam. “This is an uprising of the people and we will not shut up again.”
The narrative of economic injustice has surrounded the protests from the beginning.
“The regimes and the leaders are the ones under fire, but it’s really about despair over the future,” said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “The faces of this include the young man with a university degree who cannot find work or the mother who has trouble feeding her family.”
Tunisia’s mutiny that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was touched off by a struggling 26-year-old university graduate who lit himself on fire after police confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart in December. Apparent copycat self-immolations quickly spread to Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere.
In Yemen, the poorest nation on the Arabian peninsula, sporadic riots have forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh into quick economic concessions, including slashing income taxes in half and ordering price controls on food and basic goods.
On Friday in Jordan, thousands of marchers clogged streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai and call for measures to control rising prices and unemployment. Many chanted: “Rifai go away, prices are on fire and so are the Jordanians.”
King Abdullah II also has tried to dampen the fury by promising reforms, and the prime minister announced a $550 million package of new subsidies for fuel and staple products like rice, sugar, livestock and liquefied gas used for heating and cooking.
What feeds the flames is common across much of the Arab world: young populations, a growing middle class seeking more opportunities and access to websites and international cable channels, such as Al-Jazeera, which have eroded the state’s hold on the media.
There are no clear signs on whether more protests could erupt.
Syria’s authoritarian regime remains in firm control and has taken gradual steps to open up the economy. Rulers in the wealthy Gulf states have the luxuries of relatively small populations that often receive generous state benefits and other largesse. Kuwait’s emir, for example, pledged this month 1,000 dinars ($3,559) and free food coupons for each citizen to mark several anniversaries, including the 1991 U.S.-led invasion that drove out Saddam Hussein’s army.
But there have been stirrings of discontent in North Africa. Earlier this month, security forces in Algeria clashed with opposition activists staging a rally apparently inspired by neighboring Tunisia. In Mauritania, a businessman died after setting himself ablaze in a protest against the government.
A state-backed newspaper in Abu Dhabi, The National, ran interviews from four men from across the Middle East describing their trouble finding work. One 33-year-old Syrian, who has an English literature degree from Damascus University, complained he cannot find a teaching job or afford to get married.
“I feel as though I am in the Samuel Beckett play `Waiting for Godot,’ which I studied during my degree,” Khaled Kapoun was quoted as saying. “I keep hoping that tomorrow a job will come along.”
Even high Arab officials have expressed unusual candor following Tunisia’s upheaval.
Earlier this month, the head of the Arab League warned that the “Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession.”
“The Tunisian revolution is not far from us,” Amr Moussa said in his opening address to the 20 Arab leaders and other representatives of Arab League members gathered in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. “The Arab citizen entered an unprecedented state of anger and frustration.”
Moussa, who is Egyptian, called for an Arab “renaissance” aimed at creating jobs and addressing shortcomings in society.
But at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, some experts said an education overhaul is needed in the region to shift from emphasis on state jobs to more dynamic private sector demands.
“Many people have degrees but they do not have the skill set,” Masood Ahmed, director of the Middle East and Asia department of the International Monetary Fund, said earlier this week.
“The scarce resource is talent,” agreed Omar Alghanim, a prominent Gulf businessman. The employment pool available in the region “is not at all what’s needed in the global economy.”