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Unemployment: Arab Spring Not Springing Back


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. You might be ready for some football but many Native Americans say they are already tired of hearing team names they consider racial slurs. We'll hear what the Oneida Indian Nation is trying to do about one of those team names. That's coming up later in the program.

First, we go back to the Middle East and North Africa. National and world leaders have been very much focused on Syria in the wake of an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians there. President Obama has been trying to rally the Congress to move forward on some sort of military intervention. Today, though, we want to take a step back and look at the bigger picture in the region. If you remember, this conflict in Syria has actually been going on for two years.

It was initially seen as part of a wave of uprisings known as the Arab Spring, which began in part as a cry for political freedom but also for more economic opportunity, especially for young people. Fast-forward to today where unemployment in some of these countries is among the highest in the world. We wanted to know more about why this is, so we've called Sudeep Reddy. He's an economics reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Also with us is Shadi Hamid. He's director of research for the Brookings Doha Center. Welcome back to both of you. Thank you so much for joining us.

SUDEEP REDDY: It's good to be here.

SHADI HAMID: Thank you.

MARTIN: Sudeep, talk about the overall region. Generally speaking, what do the unemployment numbers look like in the Middle East and North African countries that we focused on most during the Arab Spring uprisings?

HAMID: They are depressingly high. If you look at the region as a whole, about 25 percent of youth, one in four people, are unemployed between the ages of 15 and 24, and that is actually, probably, undercounting the severity of the problem. It takes some time to get these figures and most of these numbers are from last year or even the year before, and the economic environment in most of these countries has deteriorated substantially since then. So it's probably much higher. Certain countries - Tunisia which was seen as the big hope of the region, the spark for the Arab Spring, youth unemployment is well above 30 percent and there's really little prospect of it coming down anytime soon.

MARTIN: One of the things you were telling us, Sudeep, is that education makes no difference. In the U.S. the jobless rate for college graduates is half that of high school graduates. You say not so - especially not in Tunisia, Egypt, and China. Why is that?

REDDY: That's really one of the fascinating parts of this and the most distressing parts of this environment is that, for decades, these countries actually did a pretty good job of getting education for younger people. Advancing them into secondary education - Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan - these are places where people were able to get college degrees and now they're facing two problems. One is just the overall economic backdrop is miserable when you have this kind of political dysfunction. You're not going to see businesses wanting to invest and create jobs. You're certainly not going to see foreign countries want to come in and do investment in a lot of these areas.

But also, in many cases the people who got educations might have gotten the wrong education. There's a lot of skills mismatch going on and younger people who have these high expectations are waiting and hoping they will get better jobs instead of getting the jobs that people without education would be getting right now.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, we spoke with a man named Midhad Saad (ph) who was a former tour guide in Cairo. He's a father of two. This is what he had to say.

MIDHAD SAAD: I don't have a job, at all. Since I would say March 2011 - that was the last tour I have done. I mean, I still have a girl. She's 18. She's going to start university in a couple of weeks, actually. Cairo University. So I still have four years of spending money, you know, ahead of me.

MARTIN: Shadi, what's your perspective on this?

HAMID: Well, I mean, if you look at - revolutions bring uncertainty and you have continued political upheaval so clearly tourists aren't going to be going in the same numbers to Egypt or Tunisia. So the main lesson here is that you can't separate the political from the economic as long as there's a lack of political stability, whether that means protests or coups or repressive crack downs against the opposition - all of that is going to contribute to an environment where not only tourists don't want to come in, but also investors. And investors have been waiting on the wings, hoping that the situation in Egypt will stabilize so they can start bringing capital back in. But that hasn't happened and it doesn't seem that Egypt is going to have the kind of necessary stability for the foreseeable future.

MARTIN: Shadi, obviously it's kind of hard to separate, you know, what's the chicken and what's the egg. Obviously that upheaval, you know, political unrest breeds economic uncertainty, economic uncertainty breeds political unrest - but in your perspective what is the fundamental - is there a fundamental structural problem that needs to be addressed?

HAMID: Well, here's the thing, I mean, there's very high unemployment in Europe and in countries like Spain it's actually at a similar level, but when things go bad in Spain, young people don't say, well, let's go out and stage a coup against our elected government. But that's precisely what happened in Egypt. There aren't the same norms of working within the democratic process to affect change. And I think the key take away here is that democracy for many Egyptians and Arabs and people across the world, it isn't just - it isn't a matter of principle or a matter of faith.

They like the idea of democracy because democracy is supposed to bring you good things. And that's what a lot of people thought when the uprisings happened that more democracy will lead to more opportunities. But when that didn't happen, people said, well, we are not so sure about this whole democracy thing anymore. We like it in theory but if it's not improving our standard of living then we might actually prefer to go back to an autocratic order and cheering on the generals to come back because maybe they can do better.

MARTIN: Sudeep, you were talking to us about there's a followership problem. There's a problem about building consensus around any of the issues that a lot of the finance ministers and economic thinkers in these countries believe needs to happen. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

REDDY: Exactly. You can bring economists into this and figure out what needs to be done to readjust their economies to actually set up a system that works better on the ground. But you have to have the political backdrop that works within it. And when I've talked of finance ministers from these countries - Egypt Tunisia, all over - they all seem to have a plan that seems fairly reasonable of how you would provide more support for young people to get training, how you would change the labor market, how you would do structural reform - the really important underlying changes in the economy to boost overall activity. Yet, when they actually to get to doing it, there's also a constituency that they have to worry about that's blocking them. There are a number of problems they're facing of actually just executing their plans which is you've had so many turnovers - points of turnover in governments because they just can't get to that point.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us were looking at economic realities after the Arab Spring. We're speaking with Sudeep Reddy from the Wall Street Journal and Shadi Hamid from Brookings Doha Center. Shadi, you wanted to add to that?

HAMID: Yeah, sure. I mean, if you brought a bunch of economists - Egyptian economists or Tunisian economists into a room and said, one of the top priorities - as Sudeep alluded to - there would be a broad degree of consensus. So you've got to do subsidy reform, for example. That's always been on the top of the list. But the problem with something like that - it's simply too politically dangerous because that's going to affect the poor. That's going to affect how much bread or fuel cost.

So the question is, are political leaders willing to actually go through those difficult reforms when that might actually mean that people go to the street and protest? And no one wants to put themselves in that position in one government after another. So that's where you really see how the political and the economic are really intertwined. What you need isn't just the economic knowledge of what to do, but you need the political will and that's been lacking.

REDDY: And if you look at the people who want to help these countries, there's a long list, both the United States and Europe and particularly countries in the Middle East that actually have money and have had money and have wanted to help these countries recover. If you just look at the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, these are international institutions that are designed to go in and help recovering countries like this, but they require fundamental changes on the ground. They require working governments that can actually enact reforms to budgets, enact changes to the economic environment and they're just not seeing that right now. That's why this has been so frustrating 'cause there are people who are waiting for the political environment to recover so that maybe some of the foreign aid can come in and it's just not happening.

MARTIN: I'm going to quote a former boss here and ask, is anything OK? Is there any place that is showing there's a bright spot that other people can emulate? Is there any place in the region where the people can point to - to say that that's a roadmap that other people could follow?

REDDY: The great hope had been Tunisia, a place where the education had been a little more advanced. Where the environment was a bit more moderate and maybe there was a chance there. They clearly have not advanced at the pace that the rest of the world hoped. And the parts of the Middle East where you aren't seeing the same degree of unrest is driven a lot by oil money, and that's one of the big distinctions. And you still have high youth unemployment in other countries, even in Saudi Arabia the biggest oil exporter, but it's just being masked by oil funding.

MARTIN: Shadi?

HAMID: Yeah, as Sudeep said, Tunisia is struggling but relatively speaking that's really the last bright spot of the Arab Spring we have. I mean, with Egypt falling under military rule again and problems in - major, major problems in Libya, Tunisia is the one country that we can look at and say there hasn't been a total collapse of the political arena. The government and the opposition are at least still talking to each other for now and they're sort of in a crisis situation now. But at least on, you know, on the economic front there has been a deal with the IMF, there has been more progress made in at least thinking about the structural forms that will be necessary, but again, all of that is being put to the side until the current political crisis is addressed. So, I mean, the hope going forward is that the government and the opposition will find a way to resolve their problems peacefully and through the political process. Then, and maybe then, there can be serious economic reforms that people have been waiting for.

MARTIN: That was Shadi Hamid, he's director of research for the Brookings Doha Center. We reached him at his office there. Also with us, Sudeep Reddy. Once again, he's economics reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He was kind of to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

REDDY: Thanks, Michel.

HAMID: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.