Raj Desai is a professor of International Development at Georgetown University, and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. And Khairi Abaza is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Host Meghna Chakrabarti (MC): Now, in the aftermath of revolutions, many Arab countries face questions about how to reform themselves. Most Arab countries have what’s often called a “youth bulge” - a massive population under 30, which outweighs its older population.
So, as the Middle East rebuilds, new governments need to consider the educational and employment needs of their young people, who have been the catalysts of change throughout the region.
Let me start with the simple question: it’s been almost two years since Mohamed Bouazizi’s set off that tremendous wave of revolution in the Arab world that was led mostly by young people, and people his age. What indications do you have that their demands are or are not being fulfilled?
Raj Desai (RD): There are significant frustrations among the Arab youth in Arab Spring countries. In particular, the issues of lack of opportunity, the lack of the quality of opportunity...underemployment. In addition the educational system in the Arab Spring countries, as we’ve known for years, has not really prepared young people with the skills to meet the challenges of a 21st-century labor force. These are obviously challenges that the entire region faces.
To the extent that they’re being addressed, these are long term reforms that need to be put in place. I think new governments in the region have been focused on trying to stabilize their economies. Maybe Khairi will disagree, but it doesn’t seem to me the case that the needs of of the youth have been high on the priority list, at least thus far.
MC: Khairi Abaza, do you agree or disagree with that?
Khairi Abaza (KA): I agree with that assessment and I will add that all the countries of the Arab Spring are still in transition, so there are no stable governments that can carry out a clear program that would tackle the many problems that exist in these countries. And as you mentioned earlier, most of the population of the Arab world in general and the Arab Spring is under the age of thirty.
But, the change that happened since the Arab Spring is that it restored some hope among the youth of the Arab countries, and it was hope that was lost because of the regimes that were in place. It’s true that some are disappointed regarding the pace of change in these countries and the aspiration of the youth, yet today we are in a situation where there is some hope that is being restored, and this could lead to a better situation.
MC: I wonder what you think the emergence of Islamist parties, such as the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, what that tells us in terms of the direction that the region is headed. What do you see in terms of the risks and benefits to their power? Mr. Desai?
RD: Two things have happened, one is that the party that was extremely visibility and well known because the Muslim Brotherhood operated a social program function in a lot of these communities, they had a level of visibility. Secondly, we’ve also seen a split very quickly occur between, if you want to call it the more secular, pro-Western, and more liberal wing and the more conservative, traditional wings of the anti-Mubarak movement. That happened pretty quickly. So I think we’re seeing the inevitable fragmenting of a big broad block that led the revolution very quickly.
MC: Interesting. Mr. Abaza, your thoughts on that?
KA: As to the Muslim Brotherhood, the entire political class in Egypt, with the exception of the Islamists, didn’t want early elections, and the military wanted to do so because at the time, it was in a tacit agreement with the Islamists. So when you see Islamists winning, it is the result of a lack of preparation in the transition.
They did not level the political field for all political parties and groups to compete. However, the following elections are more interesting because people get more used to an open debate, they see the performance of some elected officials, so I think we can start judging maybe after two or three elections. If the democratic process continues in these countries then we can have a better assessment of who is around and who is appealing. But right now it is difficult to assess the first post-revolutionary elections.
MC: On the one hand, there is ample evidence around the world that increasing educational opportunity for women, regardless of what country you’re speaking about, has a profound effect on the development and the increase of quality of life...just about every measure that you could apply, if you improve the educational access to women. That seems to be more or less a fact. Maybe what I should be asking is what are the measures that women themselves, in these countries, in North Africa, are using to say “How has our position in society changed since the Arab Spring?”
RD: I would point to two measures that are quite important in the Middle East. First, the Middle East and North Africa has one of the lowest labor participation rates for women in the world. Even in absolute terms, women do not participate in the workforce. The second thing is asset ownership. Women do not own assets or other property to the extent that men do in the Middle East and North Africa. And when you put those two things together, it has profound effects for the character of social programs, for poverty, and development. And we know from evidence all over the world that empowering women prevents poverty from transmitting itself across generations to a greater extent than providing cash transfers or tax breaks or other forms of welfare to men.
As far as education goes, I think the issue of education affects men and women both, boys and girls throughout the region. We know that, again, the region underperforms. If you think about a simple thing, like the test of international math and science skills, which is a test that’s given to primary school children around the world, the Middle East and North Africa is among the worst performing in the world. And it’s despite the fact that they spend as much as Japan does, actually, in terms of public resources for education.
The number of universities from the Middle East and North Africa range from about four or five, to zero. Which is extremely bad for a region that once was characterized by, actually, very well known universities, and universities that made huge strides in sciences and in math.
MC: Well that links to the persistent problem of very high unemployment rates amongst youth in the Arab world. How much do you think that the structural education problem is contributing to the unemployment problem?
RD: I think it’s a major contributor. The problem of skills shortages in the Middle East is a profound issue for young people who are entering the workforce themselves. As we’ve seen in the United States and in Western Europe in the recession years recently, when young people can’t find jobs, they stay at home, they don’t buy, they don’t marry, they don’t buy property, they don’t move out of their parents’ house. Those things, those behaviors have adverse consequences for the whole economy. And in the Middle East and North Africa, and particularly the Arab world we’ve seen this over the last four decades. So you make this transition from childhood to adulthood and you spend this time in so-called “waithood” where you’re not really a child and you’re not really an adult, because you are not able to seek the kind of long-term employment opportunities.
Most youth, if you ask them, would prefer to work in the public sector. For one thing the constitutions, most the old constitutions of the Arab countries guaranteed work for univeristy graduates, public work for university graduates. The previous Egyptian constitution guaranteed a government job for university graduates. Now the waiting period has stretched into like a decade or something like that. And I think that has to change.
MC: As you both well know, the economy in the United States and Europe are struggling, those economies are very much struggling, and so it’s understandable that people here and in much of Western Europe are more worried about their local jobs and local prospects than they may be with conditions abroad. So why would you say that in the midst of this terrible recession that the United States is struggling out of that people should continue to be plugged in and aware of what is going on in the Middle East? What is at stake? Mr. Desai?
RD: The short term reason why the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, the major donors in particular should be engaged is without some external help these countries are facing serious economic problems. And so if we think of all of the security related issues, if you think about the situation now, you can only imagine how much worse it would be if you add to that a currency collapse in Egypt, or an economic crisis in other countries. So, countries that are enveloped in a network of relations and ties with the outside world do much better than those that are for lack of a better term isolated. So it’s a matter of not just providing foreign aid, it’s a matter of providing educational and cultural exchanges, trade, investment, all the sorts of things that we have done in the past. There is an imperative, I think, for us to do that this time.
MC: Mr. Abaza?
KA: Yes it is also important for US interests to try and stabilize the situation. For this, stability means economic prosperity, it means certain liberties that should be granted to the population there. Also for other neighbors such as the European Union, it’s the neighbor of the Arab world and it’s crucial for them to stabilize that part of the world to prevent immigration and issues such as political frustration that can lead to terrorism sometimes. And they are getting involved in the stabilizing of countries of the Arab Spring.
RD: If I could just add, if we don’t, other countries will. And we’re seeing this already. Now, I’m not saying that resources from Saudi Arabia or Qatar for example are bad, but it’s a choice that all of us face in terms of what is North Africa going to look like when it is much more closely connected to Saudi Arabia and the richer Gulf countries than it is to Western Europe or the United States?