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The Corporatist Threat to the Arab Spring

NEW YORK – The young protesters of the Jasmine Revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt, many of them university graduates, overthrew the old regime because it impeded or blocked them from careers that would offer engaging work and the chance for personal growth. The protesters did not demand more creature comforts or better infrastructure; they demanded opportunities to make something of themselves.

These young Arabs were being stymied in two ways. To get any good job required connections with insiders, something that ordinary young people could not acquire. And securing some type of self-employment, such as selling fruit and other goods on the street, required licenses, which were limited.

These restrictions resulted in widespread over-qualification, or under-employment, but most of all unemployment. The struggling fruit and vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia set himself on fire – triggering the country’s popular uprising – because he could not get anywhere in this system.

Obviously, some changes in the economic system are needed. An open letter by mostly European economists proposed to G-8 leaders an economic “plan” for Tunisia. Their diagnosis is that Tunisia suffers from a “closed” economy, “authoritarian” governance, and “poor infrastructures.” Their prescription is immediate “food and energy subsidies,” a five-year plan for “investment” in transport infrastructure and the technology sector, and the creation of special “industrial zones.”