"Young Arabs mostly just want a job"

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The Arab Spring was about freedom and democracy – but also about money says Libyan economist Tarik Youssef. And the revolutions across the Arab world can only be called truly successful if young people’s prospects of a job and a decent life have improved. 

The recent Arab Youth Survey 2013 showed that those questioned were largely optimistic about the future – but at the same time, many young people are concerned about the chances of earning a good income and having their own home.

Locked out
Dr Tarik Youssef believes that these basic desires were the motivating force behind the Arab Spring. Young people’s unrest was fuelled by economics and not just politics. “Arab youth feel locked out. For almost two generations, they’ve lacked access to the essential things in a human’s life: good education, work, living space and marriage. The average age when an Arab man marries is among the highest in the world. And we must regard the Arab Spring through this background.”

Youssef is director of Silatech, an NGO that works to create economic opportunities for Arab youth. He gave a lecture in Amsterdam recently at the invitation of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The exclusion of young people, says Youssef, is mainly the result of dictatorial regimes resisting any economic reforms. But has the situation improved after the Arab Spring? The newly democratically elected governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are weak, says the economist. “They have little experience and are in the middle of a global economic crisis. So they are only busy with crisis management and short-term thinking. They will try to make the people happier in the short-term and buy their loyalty. But they don’t have the power to make the long-term reforms required to create more employment opportunities. What really needs to happen is only being delayed.”

Space for innovation
This may sound ominous. But there are also new opportunities post-revolution. With the falling away of government control, space is created for all sorts of new initiatives and experiments. “People should stop expecting all these reforms to come from government. The long-term reforms are not the responsibilities of governments but of everyone: civil society, the business world and the international community.”

A lot can be done by individuals, says Youssef. “I don’t believe in top-down ‘Big Reform Projects’. I think social regeneration should come from the bottom-up. Specifically, small projects can lead to big changes. We can help young people with choosing their professions, developing their skills, helping set up companies and making sure they have access to capital – all of this must be possible in one of the richest regions in the world.”

Act now!
Youssef also sees an important role for outside countries in such projects. “The Gulf States should be the first to take action but unfortunately they are only busy with their own self-interest. Europe and the US should be doing much more but they are much too afraid of the Islamists. They must jump in now and help build up new, democratic institutions.”