Trouble Brewing In The Middle East: One Key Lesson Of The Arab Spring
BY: E. HACHEMI ALIOUCHE
On December 17, 2010, after having his produce confiscated by the police, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 25-year old Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, causing his death, and unleashing massive street riots that quickly spread first across Tunisia, and then to several other North African and Middle Eastern countries. This desperate act by a young man who could support his family only by selling fruits on the street, turned out to be the catalyst of what became known as the “Arab Spring”. This act also illustrated in dramatic fashion the desperation and hopelessness of large numbers of young people across that very sensitive region.
After much turmoil, pain, and suffering in the region, and the physical or political demise of several leaders, including Gaddafi in Libya, Mubarak in Egypt, and Ben Ali in Tunisia, the root causes of the Arab Spring have still not been addressed in any meaningful way. A key root cause is the endemic youth unemployment in the region – at about 30% the highest rate anywhere in the world. In a region where almost 65% of the population is under 30 years old, this is a massive problem. Every year, about 5 million new people in the region enter job markets that are unable to provide decent employment to often well-educated job seekers. This only expands the ranks of millions of discontented young people with no future and no hope, creating a ticking time bomb. A key lesson of the Arab Spring is that the youth unemployment ticking time bomb eventually explodes.
Even though the reasons behind the current mass demonstrations in the North African country of Algeria are multiple (more democracy and freedom, change of leadership, honest governance, etc.), lack of job opportunities for the young is a core motivator. Lead by young students and unemployed or underemployed youth, these massive and miraculously peaceful demonstrations – now in their fourth week – have shaken the current regime of ailing president Bouteflika to its core. Whether these mass demonstrations will spread to other MENA countries – as the Tunisia unrest did – is an open question.
For any hope of long-term stability in the MENA region, the youth unemployment ticking time bomb has to be addressed in a consequential way. It is now recognized that the usual ways of creating jobs for the youth through government programs or the private sector will not be enough. New, more creative job creation models are also needed. Social entrepreneurship, a business model that combines a social mission (such as employment creation) with proven market-based principles may be one new and promising approach to creating sustainable jobs. This new business model has been gaining popularity in recent years. An example of a successful social enterprise is Education For Employment. EFE’s objective is to “help young women and men through demand-driven training programs that link them to the world of work while creating opportunities for them to develop their professional skills, build social capital and engage in their communities” (https://efe.org/en/about/overview/). EFE is now active in eight MENA countries.