Protests across Arab world highlight socio-economic pressures
Events in Tunisia, Algeria and Jordan over the past week reveal the socio-economic pressures building up across the Arab world that may pose significant internal challenges to regional governments, writes Tim Molesworth.
Events in Tunisia, Algeria and Jordan over the past week reveal the socio-economic pressures building up across the Arab world that may pose significant internal challenges to regional governments.
A month of protests in Tunisia unexpectedly came to a head on Friday when President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down and fled to Saudi Arabia. The protests had been directed against the lack of economic opportunity in Tunisia where there are not enough jobs for the youth-heavy population. They were compounded by social and economic inequality in the country and turned political amid accusations that the government did not care.
In Algeria earlier in the week, at least one person was killed and 53 reportedly injured during three days of protests over rising food prices and the cost of housing. In response, the government held crisis talks to work out how to reduce the costs of foodstuffs and protests appear to have settled.
Thousands of Jordanians took to the streets of Amman on Friday to protest against rising inflation and the cost of living while calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai. Rifai is widely seen by Jordanians as a protector of the wealthy at the expense of poorer parts of the population. The government has agreed to work out ways to lower costs.
I spent six months of last year in Jordan where the economic challenges faced was a frequent topic of my conversations with Jordanians, many of whom suffered directly. Inflation in the country is estimated by the World Bank at 16% and the cost of living is already one of the highest in the region. Youth are particularly affected, as the economy cannot provide enough jobs for the large number of young people graduating out of one of the Middle East’s best education systems.
While the nature of the political systems, the level of the government’s engagement with the population and the government response are different in each of these countries, the underlying economic conditions are similar. Such conditions are further mirrored across the Arab world, where economies struggle to meet the demands of a youth bulge entering the job market. The average age of the Arab world is 22 while some 65% of the entire population is under 25. Combined with growing income inequality and the reliance of regional economies on only one or two sectors, this presents huge economic, social and political challenges for regional governments.
Economic protests are not unusual in the Middle East and North Africa and are frequently used by populations unable to express economic difficulties in other ways to force a government response. While the resignation of Ben Ali due to such protests was unprecedented, it remains to be seen whether the new Tunisian government, headed by the new President Fouad Mebazaa, will actually seek to address the economic and social conditions behind the protests or will merely stabilise the situation through superficial measures. Whatever happens, the Tunisian experience will be closely watched by regional governments concerned that the same thing could happen elsewhere.