The Youth, the Jobs and the Anger – The Story of the Tunisian Uprising

by Luca Etter

The forced resignation of Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ended one of the longest reigning and heaviest handed regimes in the world, marked by false elections, rampant corruption and an extremely restrictive press regime. It is the first time an Arab leader has been brought down by street demonstrations, and the fact that most protests were coordinated by social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook – which often times are censured or blocked in Tunisia – makes the events of the last month even more remarkable.

In many ways, among North Africa’s authoritarian regimes, Tunisia seemed like the least likely candidate for a popular uprising. A nation often labeled as the “the most European country of North Africa” has been accepted (and largely ignored) by the West because of its tough stance on Islamic groups (both terrorists and not) and been known for a relatively large middle class, a liberal and mostly secular and stable society. (Tunisia’s northern neighbor, Italy, has been governed by 36 leaders since the end of World War II. compared to Tunisia’s two in the same period.)

It remains questionable whether or not the departure of Ben Ali and his family will mark the beginning of true democratic reform in the country – as promised by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and speaker of the parliament Fouad Mebazaa– and who will fill the vacuum left behind by a President who controlled the country for almost 30 years. It will also be interesting to see if Ben Ali is only the first of a number of Arab rulers who will feel the frustration of their people with authoritarian leadership and economic policies. Current events in Egypt suggest that will not be the case.

The Source of Anger

The main reasons why leaders across the Arab world should be warned by the Tunisian “jasmine revolt” is that the root cause of the anger is a situation many Arab countries are familiar with: deep seated frustration with the regime combined with dire economic prospects of the country’s youth. Tunisia, like most Arab countries, faces severe unemployment which is disproportionally affecting the young and the better educated. The unemployment rate of youth below 25 with a university degree is at a very high 30 percent, and a World Bank study has shown that for certain disciplines, such as law, one out of two graduates is without a job 3.5 years after graduation.

The primary reason for the high unemployment rates have been known for a while and are not unique to Tunisia: a large public sector where jobs are awarded based on favorism and connections rather than merit, a large informal economy providing low quality and low paying jobs, as well as malfunctioning labor market institutions. Making matters worse, the region faces the second highest population growth rate in the world – second only to Sub-Saharan Africa – meaning that the 70,000 jobs the Tunisian economy has created each year since 2000 were not enough to absorb the ever growing cohort of entrants to the labor market. Moreover, the current crisis in Europe, and particularly high unemployment among immigrants in France, has limited the prospects for young Tunisians to emigrate and reduced the stream of remittances from France and the rest of the EU.

Political Reform – and Jobs

For as remarkable as the latest developments have been and for as much as they represent a great opening for true democratic reform in Tunisia and potentially other countries in the region – they will only be sustainable if they are accompanied by serious economic reforms that dramatically improve the perspectives of the Arab world’s huge young population.

For these reforms to be effective, many people that have lived fairly well under Ben Ali will have to give up some of their privileges. The financial market is dominated by state-owned banks and getting credit is very difficult, in particular for young entrepreneurs without connections to the ruling elite. Unions have a firm grasp on lawmakers in many industries and have created a divide between insiders (those having jobs and enjoying generous benefits) and those that are looking for jobs (mostly young university graduates without connections to the establishment). Professional associations, such as those of lawyers, limit competition and make entry for new graduates difficult to impossible. And finally, despite the government’s emphasis on promoting job growth, labor market policies in Tunisia have had little success to effectively integrate the youth in the job market.

The future of Tunisia is uncertain and it is likely that the country that was longing for change for more than three decades will take a while to reorient itself. It remains uncertain if the resignation of President Ben Ali does indeed change the system, or maybe only the face of it (albeit a very visible one: there was a picture of Ben Ali in every single government office and almost every street in Tunisia). Whatever democratic reforms may or may not happen, they will only do half the job. Tunisia and its Arab neighbors face the immense challenge of the greatest youth cohort of their history entering their labor markets and more than anything else they demand jobs. Otherwise, they may take to the streets not only in Tunis – but also in Amman, Algiers, Beirut, Cairo, and Sana’a.

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