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February 19, 2011

Lack of jobs, opportunity drive revolts


Daily Star

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Just as in the United States when economic struggles can cause incumbent presidents to be ousted in their re-election bids, it's the economy that is fueling the unrest and revolts in northern Africa and the Middle East.

While there are other related circumstances leading the region's Arab nations to have their own "it's the economy, stupid" moments, it has become hard for us to understand because until recently most of the images we saw of the Middle East not linked to our wars were of glistening new buildings and modern oil-production facilities.

Last week we witnessed a different kind of picture when hundreds of thousands of Egyptian protesters forced the country's authoritarian president to flee Cairo. They said they wanted democratic reforms and freedom, but what they really want is jobs and economic opportunity _ and the dictator wasn't delivering them.

We rarely heard about the repressive conditions in Egypt, or in Jordan, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and others, for that matter, because all our attention has been focused on the wars against autocratic regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and because the former nations have been considered allies. However, we certainly know about the lack of freedom in our non-ally, Iran.

But beyond the lens thrown over our vision by our ethnocentrism, the government and the media, the strife in the Middle East has been building for years and we should have seen it coming. So, what's been changing that is leading to this year's rebellions?

A population explosion is a major factor. Since 1980, the Arab nations have had the highest rate of population growth of any region in the world. While there certainly are social and cultural explanations for that growth, one reason is that a lot more infants are surviving. Investing oil money into improved health care systems has led to drastically improved infant mortality rates in the Middle East.

The Mideastern and north African baby boom that began in the 1980s mirrors the post-World War II birth binge in the United States that manifested itself with hordes of young people coming of age in the 1960s and '70s. In nations such as Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, more than 50 percent of the population is under 25. And Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon and Tunisia are not far behind.

Can you imagine that two-thirds of Egypt's population is under 30? In Yemen, the percentage is even greater. The Middle East now has more than 100 million people between the ages of 15 and 29.

Those numbers would seem to bode well even for a repressive society because of the investments most of the region's countries have made in education since the 1980s. But for many young people there has been little opportunity to use that education. Arab economies have been chugging along, not creating enough jobs to keep up with the tide of people entering the work force.

According to Mustapha Nabli, chief economist at the World Bank for the Middle East-North Africa region, "an additional 11 million people were added to the ranks of the poor between 1987 and 2001 because the region's population continued to grow but its economies didn't." In Egypt, which along with Yemen has a poverty rate more than double that of the region's average, half the nation's 80 million people have been living on less than $2 a day. Unemployment rates in the region average about 13 percent, but it is higher yet for educated young people.

History teaches us that people often will tolerate a repressive regime as long as it delivers the goods; in other words, when people have enough to eat, decent housing, jobs and a chance to better themselves and their families. Clearly, that has not been the case in Egypt and many of its Arab neighbors.

Much has been made of the role of the Internet and social-networking websites in galvanizing people to rise up against their oppressive leaders. It also was because of the Internet in recent years that many Arab-nation peoples became aware that other more-democratic nations were able to produce more prosperity.

Because of the spread of the rebellious protests of recent weeks, the nations of the Middle East and north Africa will never be the same again. The demonstrations will not cease until reforms are made, or revolts are violently squashed.

Either way, as stated this week by Ahmed bin Helli, the Arab Leagues's deputy secretary-general, "there is a new Arab reality, and that is that there are young people trying to achieve development and democracy. And so it is necessary that there be coexistence in a common Arab destiny and with Arab societies. This is a new reality." It is important that the leaders of Arab nations and the United States recognize that fact and support the reform movements, whatever the country.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor of oneontatoday.com. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.