NEW YORK – Many factors underlay the ongoing upheavals in the Middle East: decades of corrupt and authoritarian rule, increasingly literate and digitally-connected societies, and skyrocketing world food prices. To top it off, throughout the Middle East (as well as Sub-Saharan Africa and most of South Asia), rapid population growth is fueling enormous demographic pressures.
Egypt’s population, for example, more than doubled over the course of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, from 42 million in 1980 to 85 million in 2010. This surge is all the more remarkable given that Egypt is a desert country, its inhabitants packed along the Nile. With no room to spread out, population densities are rising to the breaking point. Cairo has become a sprawling region of some 20 million people living cheek-by-jowl with inadequate infrastructure.
Rapid population growth means a bulging youth population. Indeed, half of Egypt’s population is under age 25. Egypt, like dozens of countries around the world, is facing the extreme – and largely unmet – challenge of ensuring productive and gainful employment for its young people.
Employment growth is simply not keeping up with this population surge, at least not in the sense of decent jobs with decent wages. The unemployment rate for young people (15-24 years old) in North Africa and the Middle East is 30% or more. The frustration of unemployed and under-employed youth is now spilling over into the streets.