TUNIS – Like a long dormant volcano that suddenly erupts, the revolutions that have swept across North Africa – against a backdrop of strong economic performance – took all by surprise. Prior to the explosion, average annual GDP growth in the region had been humming along at 4.6% for a decade, with strong improvement in human development indicators.
But this growth was in some ways deceptive, for it masked problems that had long simmered beneath the surface: burgeoning unemployment, especially among the region’s youth, and political repression – the issues that eventually brought things to a boil. In Tunisia, whose revolution ignited the wildfire of change that quickly spread across the region, young people account for 70% of total unemployment. The statistics are similar in Egypt and Libya.
The common denominator across the region is that, while its economies were growing, they were unable to generate enough jobs. This has created a generation of disaffected, under- and unemployed young people, including large numbers of recent university graduates. Ultimately, all levels of society, catalyzed by the actions of restive and disenfranchised youth, came together to demand change and reform. Throughout North Africa, populations have spoken resoundingly with their feet – and continue to do so.
There is a lot of goodwill to ensure a democratic dividend for these countries, while of course managing expectations. But how, exactly, should the region’s policymakers respond?