The man who served my first cup of steaming mint tea in Cairo hadn’t wanted to be waiting tables and setting up hookahs at age 26. He’d gone to a technical school, planning to land a construction job that would pay enough to get married and support his household while also helping his mother, a widow.
Instead, he had drained his family’s savings and lost hope of ever earning enough to support a wife and children.
You find similar stories everywhere in the Arab countries.
The faces of the Arab protestors on television over the weekend are the faces of frustrated young people I saw a few years ago stuck in menial work throughout the region — leading donkeys through crowded markets, balancing trays piled with bread on their heads and peddling newspapers from sidewalk stands.
They were working, but just barely. And they were consumed by resentment.
The rage exploding on the streets of Egypt, Yemen and other Arab countries has been boiling under the surface for a long time.
The leaders of those countries should have seen it coming. Professor Ragui Assaad is one of many experts who have warned for years that young Arabs were frustrated to an explosive point.
“What is fueling all of this anger is the dashed expectations of the young people who are a larger and larger portion of the population of the region,” said Assaad, an economist at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.
Assaad spent two recent years in Cairo working to document rising frustration among youth across the Arab world. Some of his findings are reported in the book “Generation in Waiting: the unfulfilled promise of young people in the Middle East.” [PDF] His reports also can be found on the website of the Middle East Youth Initiative, a project of the Brookings Institution and the Dubai School of Government.
Here’s the root of the problem, as Assaad explained it to me:
The Arab world had its own version of a baby boom starting some 25 years ago. It gave rise to the largest generation in the history of the region, more than 100 million young people. As a result, the median age is 24 in Egypt and 18 in Yemen compared with 37 in the United States and 44 in Germany, according to the CIA World Factbook.
The Arab countries weren’t nimble enough to expand their school systems, health clinics and other facilities to meet the needs of this youth bulge. So masses of these kids overcrowded the available schools and got diplomas without real educations and skills that could help land jobs.
That wasn’t seen to be a problem because anyone with a diploma had been all but guaranteed a government job. Their parents had been secure in bureaucratic posts, bringing home enough money to support comfortable middle class lifestyles.
The kids expected to do the same or better.
Their trust in the future was based on a sort of social contract. Assaad calls it the “authoritarian bargain.” Its terms were this: The government will take care of you. It will provide you with jobs, benefits, subsidized commodities and other rewards. In return, you will not question the authoritarian rule of the state.
But the economic model behind the bargain collapsed during the 1980s and 1990s. The governments couldn’t support their bloated bureaucracies, especially with the youth bulge coming of age.
Moreover, the private-sector economy was not dynamic enough to generate the jobs this generation was eager to fill. Even if it had been, millions of young people lacked any productive skills.
In other words, the biggest generation ever to rise in the Arab world grew up with high expectations that clashed with brutal modern-day economic reality.
The upshot is not so much unemployment — although that is chronically high in some Arab countries, roughly comparable to U.S. rates during the Great Recession.
The more pervasive problem is underemployment. Too many of these young people are stuck serving tea, peddling bread and guiding donkey carts through the markets.
Corruption and police states
What was true in Cairo was true in villages along the Nile River and beyond Egypt’s borders too. Even in oil-rich Arab states, you meet hordes of immigrant workers from countries like Egypt who are performing menial jobs in order to send money back home to their families.
Even as the economies grew stronger in their home countries, these disillusioned young workers watched corrupt leaders and a politically-connected elite line their own pockets, leaving masses of resentful youth ever further behind.
Lavish new villas began to spring up around Cairo, Assaad said, in sharp contrast to the squalor that blights some areas of the city.
The governments responded to the mounting frustration with ever-tighter police control. You saw dissent in Egypt, but it was dangerous. Most of the young people I talked with steered clear of politics. It was safer that way, they told me. So they wore the mask of political apathy.
New windows to the world
Then came the pizza-sized satellite dishes that brought cable TV into every home and corner coffee house. With it came images and news of far-away people enjoying the prosperous lives that had passed by this Arab generation — and enjoying more freedom too.
More reasons to feel humiliated and deprived.
“People saw democratic options out there that they had been deprived of,” Assaad said.
Finally add Facebook and Twitter. People could communicate their frustration like never before.
The sum of these factors was an explosive situation.
Fuse lit in Tunisia
Then Mohammed Bouazizi lit the fuse in Tunisia. The 26-year-old street vendor — underemployed like so many in his generation — set himself on fire after police confiscated the fruit cart he needed to support his family.
“That was the spark that got this whole thing started,” Assaad said. “It caught on and spread through this tremendous base of frustration. Now, people simply are not going to accept the status quo anymore.”
So far, that spark has flared spectacularly in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. People of all ages and education levels have joined the angry youth in the streets and rolled their various grievances into a demand for change.
Who knows how far the spark will spread?
An eruption in Jordan wouldn’t surprise Assaad. Although Jordanian King Abdullah II has more legitimacy than the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the same seething youth bulge could take out its frustration on other high government officials.
Another spot to watch, Assaad said, will be Sudan, where division over the secession of the southern region is but the latest reason for resentment among young people.
Of course, none of these countries is identical.
Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation with 80 million people while the other countries staging uprisings — Tunisia (11 million) and Yemen (23 million) — are much smaller. And Egypt has a long tradition of playing a major role in regional and world politics.
Yemen is poorer than many of its Arab neighbors.
So the outcomes of this revolt could be far different country to country.
Beyond regime change . . . hope
But the common denominator is a generation of young people who feel cheated and demeaned.
So deep are their problems at this point that it’s hard to see how regime changes could deliver the turn around that they seek.
“These are very long-term problems that cannot be resolved by a regime change,” Assaad said.
But the intense frustration among the youth could be relieved by a sense that they have a voice in the future of their countries, he added.
“If you have no voice and you are not able to see a future for yourself on a personal level, then the frustration is extreme,” he said. “While their economic conditions are not going to improve dramatically overnight, I think they are going to see room for hope that they might have something better in the future.”
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.
RELATED: Ragui Assaad will speak on “Youth Movements and Revolution in Egypt” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 1, in 125 Nolte Center, 315 Pillsbury Drive S.E., Minneapolis. The free event is hosted by the U of M College of Liberal Arts’ Institute for Advanced Study.