The Arab Springs: An analysis of its roots and causes

The causes of the uprisings

The outbreak of the Arab Springs was an event that no one had seen coming. But while the moment may have been impossible to predict, the conditions that led to it had been extensively analysed. These conditions were in part shaped by demographic and socioeconomic trends. In this connection, Bichara Khader has pointed out the seismic shift that in the last quarter of the twentieth century took place the Arab Maghreb, and to a lesser extent in the Mashriq as well: the population was getting younger, and the youth kept entering the workforce in greater and greater numbers (Khader 2003). In 2007, almost one-quarter of the population in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) ranged between the ages of 15 and 24 (Assaad and Fahimi 2007). At the time, there were about 100 million people in this age bracket, out of a population of 380 million. If we broaden the age bracket so as to also include people between the ages of 2 5 and 30, we get a youth population that accounts for 65 percent of the overall population. The MENA region ranks second only to Sub-Saharan Africa in the percentage of youths within this age bracket (Gelvin 2012, 19). This trend is part of a broader trend within the MENA region, where the population soared from 60 to 380 million over the course of the twentieth century.

This picture of the labour market was posing a serious challenge to the Arab countries, considering that the objective was to increase the labour force participation rate by 4 percentage points by 2020. It was unrealistic to expect this kind of performance, with a growing unemployment rate that had already surpassed the 15 percent mark in 2003.


As Kneissl (2011, 5) observes, these trends “pointed towards a mounting crisis or even to social explosion. However, nobody could foretell an exact date.” Kneissl goes on to comment that “the Arab world might have seen popular democratic uprisings earlier, if the Iraq war had not come in between in early 2003” (attributing that assessment to Volker Perthes), “since the notion of democracy has been connoted with interventionism, instability and anarchy ever since the invasion into Iraq for the sake of regime-change started” (ibid.).

In order to appreciate how a growing population was affecting unemployment, we need only consider that in the decade from 2000 to 2010, 40 million youth entered the labour force (see Ciranda 2010/11, 86; cf. Ciranda 2012), marking a 40 percent spike in the size of the overall labour force. According to a study issued by the World Bank (Kabbani and Kothari 2005, 13), the MENA countries would have had to generate at least 100 million jobs in the two decades from 2000 to 2020 in order to absorb the incoming labour force. But the number of jobs that were being created was woefully inadequate in a bad economic situation further aggravated by the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 and by social trends like the growing number of women moving into the labour force.

But there are also structural reasons that account for the shape of the labour market in the Arab countries. The first of these lies in the government’s waning ability to act as an “employer of last resort” (Adams and Page 2002; cf. Ciranda 2010/11, 87).[1] Another lies in an educational system that does not train for the skills needed for the labour market, and another still in a system that does not encourage investment, whether foreign or domestic.

Another structural force worth pointing out lies in the effect of foreign interventions, especially the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) that in the 1980s the International Monetary Fund (IMF) implemented across almost the entire MENA region: under these programmes, the state had to progressively withdraw from the economy, thereby scaling back its own role as a backstop employer of last resort, a role it had specifically been designated for in previous years (Assaad 2008).

Furthermore, economic crisis in countries that cannot count on oil revenues translates into proportionally lower educational budgets, all to the detriment of an already fledgling educational system. The youth in the Arab countries’ educational systems fall into two buckets. There is an exclusive body of students who belong to the elite families affiliated with the government: they are trained in foreign schools and universities and will find specially reserved jobs in the high-skill labour market. In the second, much bigger bucket are all the youth who belong to poor and middle-class families, and what they can look to is mass unemployment, especially in small towns and rural areas, where there are no job opportunities, but also in the large metropolitan areas, where

The Arab Springs 177 unaffordable housing severely hamstrings their ability to find gainful employment (Mouhoud 2012, 40).[2]

If we look at the other side of the Mediterranean, the contrast couldn’t be more striking. In Italy, for example, the birth rate sits at 1.3 children for every woman of child-bearing age, whereas in Libya, a former Italian colony, that number jumps to 4. This means that the Italian population is projected to fall by 6 percent by 2028/30, while the Libyan population is expected to double over the same period. In this scenario, migration could act as a safety valve, making it possible to relieve the southern Mediterranean of its excess population by way of migration into Europe. These migratory processes could help to close the population gap—this all to the benefit of the EU, considering that by the year 2050, according to a UN report (UN DESA 2001), the EU will have to gain anywhere from 47.5 million people, on a conservative estimate, to 159 million, on a liberal estimate, if it is to maintain its current levels of social security (Khader 2003, 359).

But the implications of that demographic trend go quite against the grain of public opinion across Europe, where migration continues to be widely perceived as a threat to social security, weakening the labour market and diluting national cultural identities. But the data is incontrovertible: according to projections that Khader reported in 2003, the birth rate trend of the time was pointing to 30 million people that Europe would lose by 2025 (Khader 2003, 359). It had also been projected that the labour pool would shrink as the youth stayedlonger in school, and that for every 10 dependent persons in Europe (people younger than 15 or older than 65), there would only be 14 workers in 2020 generating the income needed to support them, as against 23 workers in 1989 (ibid., 360).

In this predicament, even as immigration faces opposition, the process appears to be at once necessary and inevitable: it would help to achieve a demographic balance, and the remittance payments that migrants send back home would help to reduce the economic disparity between poor and rich countries. The resistance that has been mounted against immigration out of fear for security has been contributing to skyrocketing unemployment in the Arab countries, all the while making security itself an actual problem in Europe.

  • [1] As the International Labour Organization reports referring “to 2004 data, in the Middle East and North Africa region, the public sector represented some 29 percent of total employment [...], in sharp contrast to other countries in the world,” adding that this was “almost double the world average (excluding China)” (Awad 2009, 8, also cited in Amin et al. 2012, 33). 2 See Romagnoli and Mengoni 2014, 161-62, for a snapshot of the public sector’s diminished capacity to absorb the labour force, the slow growth of the private sector, and the imbalance between supply and demand in the labour markets, with its effect on unemployment, particularly on the youth labour force.
  • [2] As Hollis (2012, 81) observes, “persistent and gross disparities in wealth and high unemployment were among the grievances that triggered the Arab revolts in 2010-11.” And precisely in this connection we can see a failure of the EU, with its attempt “to ‘export’ its model of liberal economics and democracy,” a model that “consistently featured accountable government, the rule of law, freedom of expression and assembly, and respect for human rights.” For it was on the basis of this model that “for over two decades the EU [had] been promoting and justifying its policies on the grounds that they [would] help create ‘shared prosperity’ and more jobs for all the countries of the Mediterranean” (ibid.). 2 EU countries have signed bilateral agreements to control migration. Among these is a 2008 agreement between Italy and Libya (Law No. 7 of 6 February 2009, “Ratifica ed esecuzione del Trattato di amicizia, partenariato e cooperazione tra la Repubblica italiana e la Grande Giamahiria araba líbica popolare socialista,” signed in Bengasi on 30 August 2008, published in Cazzetta Ufficiale (GU), Serie Generale, no. 40 of 18 February 2009), whose Article 19 states that “the two parties shall intensify their ongoing cooperation in the fight against terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking, and illegal migration” (my translation). Cf. Kneissl 2011, 5, n. 11. Similarly, in 2008 France and Tunisia signed an agreement to control illegal migration and the migration of seasonal and permanent workers, while undertaking to develop job skills and human resources in Tunisia (Kneissl 2011, 6, n. 12). See Décret n. 2009-905 du 24 juillet 2009 portant publication de 1’accord-cadre relatif à la gestion concertée des migrations et au développement solidaire, du protocole relatif à la gestion concertée des migrations (ensemble deux annexes) et du protocole en matière de développement solidaire (ensemble trois annexes) entre le Gouvernement de la République française et le Gouvernement de la République tunisienne, signed in Tunis on 28 April 2008, published in Journal Officiel de la République Française (JORF) no. 0171 of 26 July 2009, 12493ff., text no. 4.
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