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Mideast 'baby boomers': Shock troops of protests

1 March 2011

Tarik Yousef and Ragui Assaad analyze the impact of Middle Eastern 'baby boomers' on the region's current unrest. This article was originally published by MSNBC and is reposted here. The views expressed in this article are those of the published author.

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 to 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.

Compare that with an unemployment rate for young Americans of 19.1 percent in July 2010 and 20 percent across the 27 nations of the European Union, as of August 2010.

“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.

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