— The wave of protests breaking across the Mideast and North Africa has a common leading edge — in each case, the unrest was triggered by young people lacking jobs or a viable future.
The youthful revolts and protests are in many ways predictable, experts say, combining a population boom that has produced a high percentage of teenagers and young adults with social conditions that are as volatile as the oil that fuels the region’s economy.
“Young people without jobs, young people who are waiting for a chance, young people without hope … they’re waiting, waiting, waiting,” said Tarik Yousef, dean of the Dubai School of Government. “At some point, you reach a threshold of patience.”
Jihan Ibrahim, a 24-year-old Egyptian activist who was shot in the back with a rubber bullet during one of the protests and fled through a rain of tear gas and water cannons, said the pain and terror were “the price of freedom under this kind of a regime.”
“I want to be able to elect who I want to represent me. I want my government to be transparent,” said Ibrahim, who lived in California for several years when she was younger. “I want free education and decent health care, and decent wage and job opportunities — just like any reasonable human being would ask for.”
Young adults like Ibrahim are part of a regional “youth bulge,” a situation that occurs when infant mortality declines during a period of improved medical technology and families continue to have many children.
Overall, 15- to 24-year-olds make up about 20 percent of the population across the Mideast and North Africa, and 30 percent when that range is extended to 15- to 29-years old, according to a report by the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
In the U.S., 15- to 24-year-olds and 15- to 29-year-olds make up 14.1 percent and 21.3 percent of the population, respectively.
'Like the baby boom generation’
“It’s a bit like the baby boom generation in this country,” said Ragui Assaad, an Egyptian-American and professor of planning and public affairs at the University of Minnesota. “But it’s not because there are more babies — it’s because more babies are surviving.
“What makes the youth bulge particularly problematic is its combination with economic conditions that have made it hard to employ these young people in productive ways.”
Unemployment among the young is stubbornly high in many countries in the region. In 2009, Algeria and Iraq had unemployment rates of 45 percent for 15- to 24-year-olds, according the Brookings report . In Libya, where the government of Moammar Gadhafi is clinging to power amid a massive revolt, the rate was 27 percent in 2005, the most recent data available. And in Egypt, where youth-led protests forced regime change, the rate was 25 percent.
“The Middle East and North Africa have the highest youth unemployment rate amongst all regions,” Credit Suisse said in a Feb. 25 report on the region’s demographics. “The effect of unemployment in some of these countries is felt even more strongly due to high inflation.”
The surge in the youth population creates “a primary condition for potential destabilization” if this situation “does not translate into youth achievement,” said Yousef, the Dubai educator.
“It sets up a demand for social-economic transformation, modernization that has to be focused on addressing the needs of this particular segment of the population,” he said. “Most of the governments in the regions have precisely failed to do that. Their approach and response to it has been one of, ‘Let’s repress it.’”
As a result, sometimes an individual can ignite a revolution.
The suicide of a 26-year-old unemployed university graduate in Tunisia, who set himself on fire on Dec. 17 after authorities said he did not have a permit to sell fruits and vegetables, was one of the triggers of the youth-led protests in that country and was widely seen as helping spark the protests sweeping the region.
Educated and underemployed
Ibrahim, the Egyptian activist, said educated and underemployed young people organized the early demonstrations. She recalled one protest outside of the Ministry of Petroleum in Cairo that was led by a group of unemployed graduate engineering students.
“We have a ministry that’s supposed to employ them and they don’t,” she said, noting the students were instead “selling sandwiches off of carts.”
“You have people that have time on their hands, they’re oppressed politically and treated horribly by the police, and then unemployed or underemployed, and they’re educated,” she said. “So that definitely has to build up a lot of anger.”
In Iran, where the government has cracked down hard on recent protests and employment is 20 percent among 15- to 24-year-olds, the lack of economic opportunity also has motivated many youth to organize anti-regime protests.
Among them is an anti-government activist who identified himself as a 26-year-old man after being contacted by msnbc.com. He said he has only been able to find a part-time job despite looking for work for two-and-a-half years.
“Injustice. Oppression. Lack of freedom. Our resources used for terrorism and not for jobs, or making Iran better. No future,” he wrote to msnbc.com, declining to identify himself out of fear for his safety.
Though he was beaten by the hardline Basiji militiamen, he said he wouldn’t stop.
“My blood is no less value then Neda … and all of our martyrs,” he wrote, referring to a young woman slain in the initial 2009 opposition protests in Iran. “… We need to free Iran.”
Assaad, the University of Minnesota professor, noted that youth were not willing to accept the “authoritarian bargain” that their parents had agreed to, giving up their freedoms in return for economic stability.
'We are not getting anything in return'
“These young people are saying, ‘We are not getting anything in return, why should we accept that bargain,’” he said. “And so they are demanding a say in how their countries are run.”
Some parallels in history of this youth bulge — and ensuing protests — can be found in the anti-government demonstrations in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, the 1986 “People Power” movement in the Philippines that brought down Ferdinand Marcos and the post-World War II protests in Europe and the U.S., Assaad said.
“It’s not a coincidence that the late 1960s in the U.S. where you saw the greatest protests on the part of young people — whether it’s a civil rights movement, or the student movement in the late ‘60s, the anti-war movement — those were led by young people,” Assaad said. “That’s the peak of where the baby boomers were becoming young adults and that same phenomenon was occurring also in Europe as the post-war generation was coming of age.”
“Their demands were less economic and more cultural in nature,” he said. “I see the 1968 revolts as more, ‘We want a say in the society and we want to be able to assert ourselves culturally in ways that are different from the previous generation.’”
The Tiananmen protesters also were not primarily making economic demands. “It was a question of, ‘Now that we have this higher level of economic achievement, we would like to have also a say in running our country,’” Assaad said.
But the presence of a youth bulge does not necessarily mean there will be violence or unrest, Assaad said.
“Youth bulges basically create dynamics for things to happen that involve youth and these things could be quite different depending on the conditions in each context,” he said. “It could be cultural demands and counterculture, as well as demands for human rights and marginalized groups, like what happened in the U.S. … In the case of the Middle East, it’s a combination of economic and political.”
In East Asia — Korea, Taiwan, China — and parts of Southeast Asia, for example, the “youth bulge actually coincided with tremendous growth in the economy and good employment opportunities, and as a result, resulted in even more rapid growth” in the ’80s and early ’90s, Assaad said.
Though the Mideast protests have been led by youth, they have grown to include others disgruntled with their governments.
“The government has put the people in a situation where they live in constant fear and I think that’s one of the main reasons why so many people have come out, because they have just had enough,” said Maryam Alkhawaja, a 23-year-old activist in Bahrain who fled her home last year out of fear of imprisonment but returned to document and participate in the protests there.
The peak of the youth bulge was reached somewhere between 2005 and 2010 in much of the Mideast and is now declining in many countries there. But the youth have made a lasting impact, along the same scale of what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989, Assaad said.
“The genie is out of the bottle. You cannot bring those people back to being apolitical and apathetic. They’re going to be there, they’re going to be active, they know now how to do it,” he said. “This region had been the region where democracy had been the slowest to come in the world. … I think that’s going to change now.”