The Middle East/North Africa region is experiencing a “youth surge,” said Jack Goldstone
, director of the George Mason University’s Center for Global Policy, at a recent GMU event. “In the last two decades the number of people in their late teens and twenties has increased… It’s doubled in Egypt; it’s grown by half in Tunisia; and nearly doubled in Libya,” he told Warren Olney on KCRW’s To the Point
Such youth surges are problematic because, Goldstone wrote in ECSP Report 13, “population distortions – in which populations grow too young, or too fast, or too urbanized – make it difficult for prevailing economic and administrative institutions to maintain stable socialization and labor-force absorption.”
In the case of Egypt, the youth surge put enormous pressure on a government system that could no longer guarantee jobs to every college graduate, said Goldstone. When government guarantees dried up, graduates found that their poor-quality degrees were of little use, especially in a system that prioritized connections and bribery. The result was an unemployment rate of 25 percent among Egyptian youth and a mounting sense of frustration with the economic system and the government.
This frustration found a symbol when Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian, set himself – and an entire region – on fire after his third run-in with the police cut off his only source of income. Youth across North Africa and the Middle East, Goldstone said, could identify with Bouazizi’s desperation and frustration after years of dealing with a closed economic system and a corrupt government.
While overall economic growth has been strong in the region – a fact which had misled many observers (including himself, Goldstone admits) into thinking the region was more stable – these economic gains were apparently being captured by the ruling elite to a far greater degree than previously thought, said Goldstone. For example, it is estimated that ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his family are worth between $40 and $70 billion.
Meanwhile, a burgeoning surge of young people were struggling to get by. Goldstone pointed to a Gallup poll conducted in 2010 in which only 12 percent of Egyptians and 14 percent of Tunisians would classify themselves as “thriving” – down from 25 and 24 percent, respectively, in 2007 and 2008.
While the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes have fallen, these revolutions do not ensure the youth in these countries will have a prosperous future. They need not only access to capital, said Goldstone, but also access to information and social networks so that they can identify market opportunities and stay connected.
Immigration to more developed countries could also be an important avenue for economic growth and education. In a Foreign Affairs article, “The New Population Bomb,” Goldstone writes, “Given the dangers of young, underemployed, and unstable populations in developing countries, immigration to developed countries can provide economic opportunities for the ambitious and serve as a safety valve for all.”
The future of Middle Eastern youth, and that of the region at large, depends on the quality of their education and their ability to be productive, said Goldstone. They stand on “a knife edge,” he said, and the transition to democracy will not be smooth or easy.
Image Credit: “Protest Face Paint,” courtesy of flickr user Ahmad Hammoud.
Sources: The Economist, ECSP Report 13, Foreign Affairs, Gallup, International Monetary Fund, KCRW, Voice of America.