Young people: drivers of the Arab democratic protests


Prof.Bichara KHADER



Since the start of 2011, the Arab World is shaken by popular demonstrations for freedom, dignity and employment. Two Heads of state, in Tunisia and Egypt, have already been ousted, one fleeing abroad and the other to face a court ordeal. Other Heads of State are white with fear on their perch. Some hold on to power, ready to carry out bloodsheds over their own people. As for the more pragmatic leaders, these chose the path of reform to contain the protests.

The reasons behind the popular discontent are many-fold: longevity of ageing, corrupt and predatory regimes, little scope for freedom, patrimonial and dynastic abuses, and growth without development as a result of capitalism of cronyism.

All these factors are exacerbated by the demographic factor: the extreme youth of the Arab population in the context of a profound demographic transformation. Indeed, since the early 1980s, the Arab World has witnessed a demographic deficit, marked by a significant drop of the synthetic birthrate, reaching today 2 to 3 children per mother against 5 to 7 on average in the 1960s. Various factors can explain this demographic decrease: increase in the number of education women and their participation on the job market; accelerated urbanization; and the nuclearisation of the family (the rule was once the enlarged family); the decline of rent-roll economies; greater resort to contraceptive methods; globalization of attitudes; etc. Figures show a progressive convergence in terms of procreation of the two shores of the Mediterranean, hence contradicting certain polemists who claim Arabs, and Muslims in general, have “kids like rabbits” (Oriana Fallaci).

One distinction must be made, and it is an important one. Unlike Europe, “wrinkled and ageing”, a characteristic of the Arab World is its extremely young population. The 0-20 age bracket represents 45% of the total population (against 25% in the EU), or approximately 170 million of a total current Arab population of 360 million. Young people aged 15 to 25 represent ¼ of the total population, averaging 80 million. In other words, the number of middle-aged oscillates around 25% of the Arab population, while it reaches 38% in European countries.

Theoretically, a young population should represent a window of opportunity. Certain demographers refer to a “demographic gift”, a “Youth bulge”, to underline the close links between available, educated and productive workforce, with economic development. But this is in theory. The reality is very different: the young Arabs, for whom rates of education and schooling have shown an extraordinary leap, are now confronted to alarming unemployment rates. These are estimated at 40% for the overall youth population and at 30% for young graduates. In both cases, women are doubly penalized. Various factors seem to explain this state of play: the poor quality of the educational system; the little diversification and regional integration of the economies; the predatory political regimes; the anemia of the private sector built upon family structures; a plethoric public sector whose absorption capacity is greatly affected; and a poor improvement of products necessary for the creation of quality jobs (many countries resort to textile subcontracting or to tourism that can only offer minimal incomes): in other words, an alarming disparity between supply and demand for young people in the active population.

Historically, the family has helped absorb the consequences of unemployment through the preservation of the social network and the creation of small jobs for young people with little investments (family businesses). It has replaced the State and the modern system: both having proven inefficient. The informal sector has also helped dampen the young population, but with pittances as incomes. This underemployment is a disguised form of unemployment. Emigration was another safety-valve, which has relieved the local job market. An estimated 10% of the active population of the Maghreb countries has been exported to the European Union, while that the Gulf countries have generated over 5 million jobs for Arabs of the Middle East.

The reality is that the valve of emigration is narrowing. The EU has padlocked its borders to regular immigration since 1974, while the Gulf countries have privileged the “national preference” for administrative positions and a cheaper and more docile Asian immigration. Admittedly, irregular migration has outplayed all restrictions and young people, mainly from the Maghreb countries, have continued reaching Europe, while the Gulf countries continue to welcome between 5 and 6 million Arab expatriates. But this has not helped soothe high unemployment rates in countries of origin. In fact, the economic strategies of these countries persist to privilege low-income sectors (textile and tourism) and the predatory nature of certain regimes discourages the dynamism of the private sector and the entrepreneurial spirit in general.

Arab States concentrate in hiding this problem behind rigged unemployment figures (12% or 14%). Some States even boasted to enjoy lower unemployment rates than Spain and Portugal. This contrasts a bleak reality of injustice marked by unequaled levels of youth unemployment, just above those of sub-Saharan African countries. This is clearly visible through the distressing spectacle of the idleness of all these young Arabs leaning against a wall all day, smoking cigarettes (in Algeria, they are nicknamed the “Hittites” – Hit meaning wall) or drinking tea at the terraces of cafés.

The psychological frustration of these young people is easy to imagine: their degrees are no longer their keys to success; they cannot build a family (nearly 2/3 of young men and 1/3 of young women are single at 30, while the average age of marriage in the 1960s was 18years old for women and 24years old for men); they cannot afford rent and continue to live with their family (3/4 of young people under the age of 30 live at home).

A young population full of dreams, ambitious, increasingly educated, largely urbanized, and connected to the outside world through social networks and cable, combined with a narrow job market: these are the ingredients of such explosion.

Is it thus a by chance that the three most repeated slogans, on the squares of Tunis and Cairo and other Arab capitals, were “freedom, dignity and employment”? Is it just a stroke of luck that the democratic protests were driven by young people, in spontaneous fashion, without leadership and political structure? These angered young people demonstrated unprecedented courage, astonishing maturity and striking modernity, while their elders froze white with fear?

But these young people may be quickly disappointed, as getting rid of an authoritarian regime is one thing, but developing a functional economy and creating the future for young people is a different story and will take time. Will young Arabs have the patience to wait? Here is the main question.

The young Arabs are confronting the European Union. The latter has too often supported Arab despots, claiming that stability is preferable to chaos and that these despots – falsely secular – are battlements against militant Islamism and anti-migratory sentinels. Time has come for the EU to compensate past transgressions by accompanying the democratic Arab revolutions and providing aid and advice to create, with the Arab countries, projects purveyor of jobs for a youth fed up of this “badly paid existence”. This is the meaning of the Communication produced by the European Commission entitled “Partnership for democracy and shared prosperity”. Let us hope that this new commitment does not end up being another simple “announcement effect”.