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Little hope seen for protesting north Africans

Students in the Yemen capital, Sana'a, shout support for the ousting of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali


A Swiss expert says the young and well educated people demonstrating for democracy and jobs in Arab countries have little hope of seeing their dreams come true.

Sociologist Franz Schultheis from St Gallen University tells that reforms, even if they are introduced, will not take effect for decades. What might happen if the time bomb represented by youth unemployment explodes?

Franz Schultheis: It has already partly gone off. Young people are on the streets in North Africa demonstrating for the fall of the regime. At the same time we’re seeing a large pent-up frustration because there is little future for the younger generation.

Thanks to a relatively modern education system, young people can attain a high level of education, and have the idea that a diploma will enable them to make their way in life.

But they have realised that this is an empty promise. The diplomas are like bouncing cheques and cannot be cashed in for adequate jobs. What’s the reason for this supply without a market?

F.S.: After colonialism the North African states aligned their education systems with the one in France with a diploma being the declared goal of a large part of each age group.

The formal education system was thus made accessible to the masses, but the countries didn’t create a job market for the university graduates.

Socio-economic structures are responsible for that: the governments have invested their considerable earnings from natural gas resources (Algeria) or tourism (Tunisia) in education, which is positive. But the demand for qualified personnel with degrees is insufficient, because the economic structures lag far behind the education system.

There is no efficient dual system which alongside formal education also offers vocational training that paves the way for professional experience. That has led to an academic proletariat of people with impressive titles exists, but which live in economically very difficult conditions. How quickly can employment opportunities and chances of earning better wages be realised?

F.S.: Reforms are not a simple matter of issuing a government decree, but take decades to implement.

Taking into account the post-colonial configuration – these countries still suffer from the symptoms of having the roots of their traditional economies and societies ripped up – it would be unrealistic to believe that a new government will change everything.

Maybe the current, cheated generation is also a generation that’s been sacrificed. People, who are now protesting for more just living conditions, will for the most part not live to see the reforms implemented.

The economic conditions must be improved, first of all through the industrialisation of the countries. These states must process their raw materials instead of exporting them.

In Algeria, Chinese workers are spearheading urban development and in return can import the natural resources China desperately needs. However, in this way the economic structures in Algeria are not being modernised because the earnings are largely being invested in education and the army. Is there a danger in Tunisia, Egypt or other countries that the young generation could slide towards religious fundamentalism because they have little hope for the future?

F.S.: The danger exists because resentment always follows large societal setbacks. If a government fails to keep its promises, than one looks elsewhere for salvation. And the worst should be feared if people lose all hope.

Many Islamic societies have fundamentalist tendencies. Islamic movements could prove to be very attractive because they provide young people a channel in which to vent their frustrations. You say that post-colonial structures are also found in Europe, in the suburbs of French or Dutch cities. Do you think there is a danger that the unrest could spill over into Europe?


F.S.: Not in a direct, mechanical way. There have been movements of people expressing their dissatisfaction in the banlieues [French suburbs] for a long time, like their brothers and sisters are now doing in North Africa.

The post-colonial configuration is two-sided: On the one hand, it is reflected in the difficult living conditions of people whom colonialism left rootless in their own homelands. And on the other hand,  in Europe it has been imported by immigrants who live in harsh and difficult conditions with youth unemployment sometimes higher than 50 per cent.

A few years ago, around 400 cars were torched each evening in the Paris banlieue, and young people set fire to the schools where their siblings were taught as well as the buses which took their mothers to market. This shows how pent-up frustrations can lead to aggression and outbreaks of violence. If it’s self-destructive it’s the most sublime form of powerlessness.

A lost generation

Youth under 25: 42% 
Percentage that are students: 35.2%
Percentage of unemployed 15-29 year olds: 31.2%
Youth under 25: 47%
Percentage that are students: 31%
Percentage of unemployed 15-29 year olds: 21.5%
Youth under 25: 48%
Percentage that are students: 11.5%
Percentage of unemployed 15-29 year olds: 17.6%
Youth under 25: 52%
Percentage that are students: 28%
Percentage of unemployed 15-29 year olds: 17%
Youth under 25: 54%
Percentage that are students: 36%
Percentage of unemployed 15-29 year olds: -
Youth under 25: 55%
Percentage that are students: 21.7%
Percentage of unemployed 15-29 year olds: 19.3%

end of infobox

(Translated from German by Dale Bechtel),

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