When disgruntled young people took to the streets of Ouargla and other southern Algerian cities, in recent weeks, their demonstrations initially sent ripples of concern throughout the North African country and the rest of the region.
Since French intervention in neighboring Mali and the terrorist takeover of the In Amenas gas plant, south of Algeria, there has been enough tension in the air. But alarmist speculations proved unwarranted. Demonstrations in the Algerian south had more to do with the now-familiar socio-economic manifestations of discontent in the region than with separatist agendas or radical demands for regime-change.
In Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, the seeds of discontent, planted by the inadequate policies of the last decades have given birth in recent years to chronic youth protests. Young people in the three countries have been clamoring for jobs and more dignified lives. In Tunisia, differently from the two other “central Maghreb” countries, extreme conditions of youth unemployment and regime unresponsiveness led to revolutionary change.
A de-stabilizing combination
The inability to create sufficient jobs combined with the high number of young people among Maghrebi populations has proven to be quite de-stabilizing. In other regions, such as East Asia, the preponderance of the youth segment within the population was a blessing for the countries’ economies. But in the Maghreb region, this stage of demographic transformation known as the “youth bulge”, coincided with an unusually-high level of youth unemployment. “The average unemployment rate for those between the ages of 15 and 24 is about 30 percent in North Africa, compared to the world average of 14 percent,” noted a recent report of the African Development Bank.
Considering the challenges at hand, in the Maghreb, solutions will take more time than young people are willing to accept or politicians are ready to admit.Oussama Romdhani
Quality jobs in particular have been lacking in the Maghreb, a region where one in two young people, on average, work in the informal sector. Algeria’s hydrocarbon sector provided revenue to the state but could not offer a fundamental solution to youth unemployment. Christine Lagarde, director general of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), recently noted in Algiers that “hydrocarbons represent 40% of Algeria’s GDP, 98% of its exports but only 2% of the job opportunities.” Although it creates a wide-ranging gamut of economic activity, the oil and gas sector itself is not labor-intensive.
Regional imbalances have further fueled the sense of frustration among young people. In Tunisia, regions in the south and the west-central parts of the country have traditionally suffered from youth unemployment more than other regions. Despite the decrease in the national unemployment ratio to 16.7% in 2012, the rate of joblessness is still at 25% in the south east compared to 11.4% in the north east. In Morocco, where the national joblessness average is at 9%, the rate of unemployment in the Marrakech region is around 4.5% while in the Oriental region it reaches 17.7%. In Algeria, where the national unemployment average is around 9%, the rate of employment in some southern wilayas is about 20%. In recent demonstrations, unemployed young people in Ouargla expressed unhappiness over what they described as an unfair advantage enjoyed by job applicants from northern provinces at their expense. Recent measures announced by Algerian authorities show determination to start addressing such manifestations of unfairness. But in Algeria and elsewhere in the Maghreb, young people have to shift away from over-reliance on the public sector. Authorities should make plain their limits in providing for revenues and jobs.
The problem is usually more acute with university graduates whose disappointment is even more difficult to contain. According to the African Development Bank, “in Tunisia, the rate of unemployment of young workers in 2008 was estimated to be above 30 percent, and the unemployment rate among university graduates in 2007 was 40 percent.” Official figures in Morocco show that that 31.1 percent of young graduates are unemployed. In all of Arab North Africa, value-added employment opportunities, whether in the services or industry sectors, are lacking. It remains a sad paradox in the Maghreb that the more educated you are, the less likely you are to find a job.
More than just jobs
But, there is more at play, here, than just unemployment figures. A sort of “cultural” wall separates young people from “older” generations. The value-systems, the notions of time and space and even the means of communication are different. Young people communicate almost exclusively with their peers.
They tend to use social media to reinforce their own propensity towards frustration and impatience. Globalized mass-media have given them immediate exposure to more gratifying standards of living elsewhere. Angus Blair, president of the Signet Institute, notes that “the youth of this region are fully connected to the world through satellite television, the internet and social networks and they are at a remove from the older values and behavior which inhibited change and allowed for heavy governance”.
Faced with the perception (and often with the reality) of closed doors in their home-countries, young people often look at emigration as the only way out. Surveys show that no less than 40% of young people in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia are in fact tempted by emigration. But with Europe in the midst of its own financial crisis, emigration prospects have predictably dimmed. For the desperate, the remaining options include joining the ranks of boat-people illegally crossing to the northern shore of the Mediterranean, or exploring the paths of delinquency and violent extremism.
Considering the challenges at hand, in the Maghreb, solutions will take more time than young people are willing to accept or politicians are ready to admit. Peaceful youth-demonstrations, such as the recent protests in southern Algeria and other places in the Maghreb, are likely to become recurrent forms of expression in today's freer political environments. These are still better than mute distrust of politicians and politics. But the terms of dialogue have certainly changed. For many of today’s angry youth in the Maghreb, time is running out for reassuring promises. Telling young people the facts is better than assuring them that the check is in the bank. They believe the checks have bounced too many times before.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.