Jobs key to Middle East’s revolutionary wave
August 7th, 2012
05:47 PM ET

Jobs key to Middle East’s revolutionary wave

By Majid Rafizadeh, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Majid Rafizadeh is a policy analyst and human rights activist and a contributing editor to the Harvard International Review. The views expressed are his own.

Despite what many Middle East analysts have been suggesting in recent months, the recent wave of uprisings in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria is by no means unique in history. That said, the focus of the latest wave is a little different.

The series of upheavals were the anti-colonial, nationalist revolutions of the 20th century, such as the Algerian Independence Movement against French colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s. Widespread resistance ultimately led to Algerian independence in 1962, but Algerians weren’t the only nation in the region fighting for independence. Bahrain, a British protectorate since 1820, didn’t gain full sovereignty until August 14, 1971. Meanwhile, the Egyptian national resistance movement, led by Saad Zaghlul Pasha and the Wafd Party, forced Britain to relinquish its hold over Egypt in 1922, when Egypt joined the community of sovereign nations. Most recently, the Iranian revolution led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic, in 1979.

This latest wave of uprisings, in contrast, emphasizes civil liberties, individualism, rule of law, democracy, and a more liberal interpretation of religion and economics. The reality is that in many of the countries now facing upheaval, a relatively small segment of the middle class has been able to accumulate capital while the majority have experienced a decrease in their quality of life. As a result, it is not unusual these days to hear of civil servants or teachers taking on two or three jobs to make ends meet.

Resistance in Syria, for example, is in many ways as much about hunger, poverty and corruption as general civil disobedience aimed at the government. Some estimates put the number of Syrians living below the poverty line at about 30 percent of the population. Under the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, capital is accumulated in a few new sectors that are controlled by the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, while the dominant modes of production existing before al-Assad’s rule have remained intact.

But Syria isn’t the only place where such frustrations  have been boiling over. In December 2010, mostly educated middle class Tunisians sparked this latest wave of revolution at a time when the unemployment rate for college graduates was as high as 20 percent, by some estimates. The match that lit the fire of unrest was, tellingly, the self-immolation of college graduate Mohamed Bouazizi, who was forced to peddle vegetables for a living.

Indeed, a common thread that links the revolutions taking place in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, is the soul-crushingly high rate of youth unemployment. Full of zeal and relatively free of responsibilities, young people are traditionally most likely to challenge the status quo, a trend being borne out in the Arab world today.

But it’s not all about economics. This latest wave also emphasizes freedom of press and the protection of civil liberties. The objective, for many of the newest revolutionaries, is to find a way to merge rights, religiosity and liberty and, more specifically, many of these would-be revolutionaries are looking to effectively marry Islam with modern values such as individuality and democratic freedoms. The new generation doesn’t oppose secularism as such, and many students, women and state employees have been vocal in their calls for individual rights, tolerance, and gender equality.

Ultimately, though, greater transparency is likely to mean little unless job creation is made a priority by governments in the region. Whatever the shape of new regimes taking power, they will need to find new models for everything from finance to education to scientific research. These new regimes must also find better ways of engaging young people, nurturing their passion and expertise, rather than ramping up tuition fees and cutting back on retraining.

To put it bluntly, incoming governments have a choice – help young people to utilize technology in a way that ensures they can earn a decent living, or see some of those same technological tools such as social media turned against them.

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Topics: Middle East • Syria

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Jennifer

    I was waiting for such article because most of the main stream analysis are about religion, sectarianism, Sunni/ Shia, Islam/christianity. No one talks about the real issues and why people are protesting. This article sheds light on that. Don't other analyst think that job and living standards is the main concerns of people around the globe. Is there any other issue? maybe again religion.

    August 7, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Reply
    • Ferhat Balkan

      I agree wholeheartedly. It's easy to blame religion or ethnic groups when there's economic struggle. It often turns to hate of outsiders. A perfect example is Greece today.

      August 7, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Reply
      • nina

        What ?
        Who is blaming who?

        August 7, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
      • Sierra

        I think Ferhat has a point

        August 8, 2012 at 3:32 am |
      • Eli

        But what does Greece have to do with religion?

        August 8, 2012 at 3:36 am |
      • Andrew

        Probably Christianity and Greece

        August 8, 2012 at 3:42 am |
      • sara

        Greece is not looking for democracy.

        August 8, 2012 at 3:48 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        True, jobs are guarantee for social stability. Social justice is as crucial too. Human rights might still be far-fetched for many in the Middle East. Yet everybody embraces equality and solidarity, especially human dignity and self-esteem. Before the upheavals in the region, where people are known for their pride, many had been oppressed. It was a mistake, hence they rose up and wanted CHANGE.

        August 8, 2012 at 6:35 am |
    • Eli

      I completely agree.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:36 am | Reply
    • Andrew

      economy an religions might have things in common.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:41 am | Reply
      • sara

        unless religion wants to control economy.

        August 8, 2012 at 3:49 am |
    • sara

      Religion still plays a role. Don't you think?

      August 8, 2012 at 3:47 am | Reply
  2. Ibrahim Muhammed Jabir


    August 7, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  3. JAL

    Fareed, how about Romneys negative campaign efforts vs Obamas negative campaign efforts in the general election? Obama clearly has the advantage, while Romney seems to paint himself into a dusty corner.

    August 7, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Reply
    • Sierra

      But the ads are quite different

      August 8, 2012 at 3:33 am | Reply
    • Andrew

      But which one do you think nestle uses more negative ads

      August 8, 2012 at 3:43 am | Reply
    • sara

      But, they have not yet started to use the real neg ads.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:49 am | Reply
  4. Jennifer

    Both are the same Jal.

    August 7, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Reply
    • Eli

      Different versions of Obama.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:38 am | Reply
  5. whatdirectdemocracymightbe

    The article makes no mention of the fact that more democracy in the Middle East has not led to no more freedom. Sectarian and ethnic divisions have proven irremediable in that region of the world. If it were an isolated regional problem, or a transient one, we might already have seen great progress since the end of colonial rule.

    Unfortunately–depending upon how one views the human condition–the problem hasn't changed. Secular authority, impartial law and universal civil rights are not what the majority seems to demand. And it was this abiding, at times violent disunity that allowed such peoples to be colonized in the first place: Culture matters.

    August 7, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Reply
    • nina

      What middle east sandpit has democracy?

      August 7, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Reply
    • Sierra

      So do you mean that Middle East does not understand democracy yet?

      August 8, 2012 at 3:33 am | Reply
    • Eli

      So, do you believe that the majority want autocracy like Iran

      August 8, 2012 at 3:37 am | Reply
    • Andrew

      democracy can take different shapes based on the culture.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:44 am | Reply
    • sara

      democracy does not come in one day.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:50 am | Reply
      • Jamil

        In the muslim world democracy will take 1000 years (unless there are revolutions or anything that might derail allah's plans.

        August 8, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  6. Sierra

    Perfect and informing analysis. An objective one.

    August 8, 2012 at 3:26 am | Reply
  7. Eli

    It's true. thats why people are taking the risk and sacrificing their lives.

    August 8, 2012 at 3:35 am | Reply
    • Andrew

      When people don't have anything to lose, they will risk.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:44 am | Reply
    • sara

      And in thousands.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:50 am | Reply
  8. Andrew

    Rule of law, i agree, the main reason.

    August 8, 2012 at 3:40 am | Reply
  9. sara

    It is good that this article does not see things based on Islam solely.

    August 8, 2012 at 3:47 am | Reply
    • Jamil

      Why would you say that Sara?

      August 8, 2012 at 11:28 am | Reply
  10. Amit kumar

    Sir/madam hello ineed a job so please give me job thank u

    August 8, 2012 at 11:15 am | Reply
  11. joe anon 1

    libya and syria are invasions by the zionized u.s. and its poodles.

    crimes against peace. war crimes. crimes against humanity.

    August 8, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Reply

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