Disillusionment of Arab youth should be a source of concern

It is not only about jobs. Young people must feel they have a real stake in their societies.
Sunday 13/05/2018
Tunisian voters stand in a queue before casting their vote a polling station in Ben Arous, on May 6. (AFP)
Youth missing. Tunisian voters stand in a queue before casting their vote a polling station in Ben Arous, on May 6. (AFP)

A recent Gallup survey paints a disturbing picture of the mindset of large numbers of young people in several Arab countries.

The survey, conducted in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, indicates that an ever-larger section of the population is pinning its hopes for the future on leaving their home country.

In 2017, close to half (46%) of North African poll respondents aged 15-29 expressed a desire to leave their home country. That was a 6% increase on the year before. About one-third of those in the 30-49 age group expressed the same wish, compared to 24% the previous year.

What is particularly worrisome is that it is the younger and better-educated of North Africa’s populations who say they want to leave.

The desire to permanently migrate increases proportionately with the level of education. A higher percentage (40%) of North Africans with university degrees wants to migrate than other groups, the survey indicated.

As Gallup analysts Iman Berrached and RJ Reinhart point out, this “does have potentially negative economic and social implications for the countries in the region whose youngest and most educated residents increasingly want to leave.”

That’s a problem.

Except for Libya, which is faced with civil strife, the other North African countries in the survey are relatively stable. However, socio-economic conditions in those countries are tough for large sections of the population. Far too many young people struggle with a lack of jobs and fail to see prospects for a better future.

The problem is compounded by young people’s impatience with their lot, which can lead them to pursue desperate options. These could include illegal immigration when legal avenues are unavailable. Many young people spend their days exploring ways to leave. These include doctors, engineers and other university-trained young cadres with promising careers at home. These professionals are not just seeking better pay abroad. They are after a better quality of life and a good education for their children.

For Maghrebis, Europe remains the most appealing destination. Young cadres from the Maghreb are steadily leaving their home countries and heading for Europe, which offers them incentives to migrate.

It is not surprising, although a tad hypocritical, that Europe is erecting barriers to keep out the less educated but more willing to take in well-trained foreign workers. In other circumstances, Europe’s willingness to take in young professionals from south of the Mediterranean could be a relief to Maghreb countries struggling with graduate unemployment but these are often young professionals who are sorely needed at home. Their sudden departure could be unsettling to their societies.

Not everyone who wants to leave will do so but many of those who have set their minds on a permanent exit tend, unfortunately,  to lose interest in their home country’s political and public life.

Elections are a case in point. Driven away by disillusionment, too many young voters shunned Tunisia’s May 6 municipal elections. It was older adults or senior citizens who were too often queuing at polling stations.

By their conspicuous absence, young voters disavow the electoral process. Furthermore, they deprive their country of the chance to hear vital voices, those that can point the way to the future. They also withhold their support from youth-oriented and progressive candidates.

When they are outside the realm of electoral politics, young people can skew towards a dangerous marginalisation. A tiny minority could be attracted to extremist narratives. That’s a risk society cannot afford.

Employment — decent employment — is the name of the game. A report published by the International Labour Organisation says that 68.6% of employment in the Arab world is in the informal sector. That’s not the sort of employment that will keep young people socially or economically engaged. All too often, informal employment means no health care, pension, solid career path or stability.

It is not only about jobs. Young people must feel they have a real stake in their societies and their societies must, in turn, show they have a stake in the next generation and their chance of a decent future.

Until that new social contract is drafted, young Arabs will probably continue to see their future in faraway lands. They should be dreaming about greener pastures at home, too.