Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year

A guide to the intellectual trends that, for better or worse, are shaping America right now. (Plus a bunch of other ideas, insights, hypotheses, and provocations.)

5. The Arab Spring Is a Jobs Crisis

Robin Wright,
Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and author of the forthcoming book,
Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World

The miscalculation was costly. The uprisings that rocked a region started when a young Tunisian street vendor opted not to pay off yet another official—and instead set himself on fire at the governor’s office in Sidi Bouzid. Mohamed Bouazizi’s death redefined Mideast martyrdom, as civil disobedience instead of suicide bombs. It triggered protests that toppled dictators. And it has led the United States to abandon some long-standing allies. Many Arab regimes have since lost billions (in uncollected revenues, and in costly security deployments and other expenditures to preempt dissent), and may now rue official greed.

But freedom also comes with a price tag of great expectations. And the uprisings have done little as yet—beyond providing the right to gripe in public—to improve daily life.

Sidi Bouzid’s plaza has been renamed Martyr Mohamed Bouazizi Square for the lanky 26-year-old vendor. Tunisians gained more than 50 new political parties to choose from, but few jobs. Tourism—worth 400,000 jobs—tumbled by 40 percent. Tunisia’s credit rating dropped to near-junk status. Investments took a nosedive. In Sidi Bouzid, scores of young men lined up daily at the governor’s office—where Bouazizi had doused himself with paint thinner—to apply for nonexistent work. The new government put up a fence in fear of further unrest. In just two months, more than 10,000 Tunisians fled to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in search of a future. Lampedusa was so overwhelmed that islanders launched their own protests against the Tunisians.

In Egypt, street vendors at Liberation Square started offering T-shirts, trinkets, and face paints in the colors of the Egyptian flag to commemorate President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. But they had few takers. Tourism reportedly dropped by 75 percent. When Mubarak resigned, more than 20 percent of Egyptians were living below the poverty line. They expected a measure of prosperity after he left, but instead their plight worsened. The new culture of protests sparked demonstrations for better pay and more jobs among pharmacists, railway workers, pensioners, lawyers, doctors, journalists, students, and, in an incongruous twist, among the police once tasked with putting down protests. Uncertainty created a cycle hard to break.

No country now in transition will be able to accommodate demands for either economic security or social justice anytime soon. Demographics don’t help. One hundred million people—one-third of the Arab world—are in the job-hungry age range of 15 to 29. So the early euphoria and momentum will be hard to sustain as the post-rebellion letdown engenders further public discontent. Many countries may face a second crisis, maybe even a series of crises. For all the promise of democratic demonstrations, unresolved rebellions also pose dangers.

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