Global Agenda: The young and the prospectless

How likely is it that this or that country will go the way of Tunisia?

The upheaval in Tunisia took most people by surprise – not just the ex-president and his cronies, but also supposed experts on the country and region. As for the average bloke, insofar as he had ever thought about the place – well, he probably hadn’t. If he had even heard of it, it was probably in the context of an ad in the travel agent’s brochure or window, or on the TV, offering a sunny Mediterranean holiday. It was not the kind of place associated with mobs engaged in lynching policemen, burning buildings and generally running amok.
But that’s what it turned into, seemingly overnight. Tunisia thus served as a classic example of a “black swan” (as in Nassim Taleb’s book of that name) – a dramatic and “game-changing” development coming out of a seemingly cloudless sky. And let’s make no mistake, it IS a major event, on a global basis – but it’s important to understand why. The reason is largely the one advanced by all the pundits in their analyses – but they didn’t go far enough in pursuing their very valid rationale.
The now-common wisdom about Tunisia is that that country has demonstrated that a seemingly placid populace, cowed under an autocratic regime, can be moved to sudden, intense bouts of fury that can bury a seemingly stable regime that has been entrenched for decades. The prolonged period of apparent calm is misleading, because beneath the surface, troubles fester for a long time before eventually exploding.
What causes them to explode so suddenly? Here, too, there is no great mystery, mainly because the mob made it quite clear what its primary grievance was: food, the lack thereof and/or the cost thereof.
The recent surge in the cost of numerous basic foodstuffs – not just grains but, in the Tunisian case at least, sugar – was the overt or proximate cause of the unrest. However, it is obvious – to the rioters themselves as well as to outsiders – that the price of sugar was no more than the proverbial straw that broke the back of the Tunisian camel (the one featured in the tourist brochure…). The “underlying issues” that drove the mob onto the streets were the lack of jobs and poor prospects facing the large cohorts of young people, especially males, in Tunisia today.
Once seen in that light, the Tunisian upheaval, revolution or whatever you want to call it, looks an entirely different creature.
Of course, it was surprising in its exact timing, but the idea that a country with that kind of (autocratic, repressive and corrupt) regime, with that kind of (low-growth, corrupt and largely backward) economic structure and, most critically, with that kind of demographic structure, would suffer from potentially violent unrest is a no-brainer. It thus ceases to be a rare-event “black swan” and becomes a commonplace white swan.
Once that is understood, it is easy to see that there are many other such white swans, both in the immediate vicinity (Egypt, for example) and much further away (food riots in Laos this week). Numerous countries – especially but not only in the Arab and Muslim world – have similar political, economic and demographic structures, making the analyst’s work very easy: how likely is it that this or that country will go the way of Tunisia? How stable is this or that regime? Spurred by the al-Jazeera-driven wave of copycat riots and even self-immolations that quickly spread across the Arab world and beyond, this has been the main theme of the material written by political, military, economic and other analysts over the last week or so.
But that is not good enough. Simply rounding up the usual suspects, using a checklist of suspicious features – Arab, Muslim, third-world, backward, corrupt, autocratic, low growth, high unemployment, etc. etc. – is too simple and far too simplistic. Let’s think a bit harder: where else are there countries with large populations of young people suffering from chronic high unemployment and with poor prospects for getting ahead in life? Youngsters who are blocked from joining the fast track because they don’t have money or connections, and because ambition and willingness to work hard don’t count for anything? Youngsters who have seen their parents, and in some cases even their grandparents, stagnate on the slow track of social and economic advancement, because of social, ethnic, religious and other forms of discrimination? Does Belgium answer that description? Holland? France? Most of Western Europe? Many American cities and some entire states? If so, then it’s not just an issue facing “poor,” “backward,” “third-world” countries located far away on another continent.
It’s actually in the heart of the Western, and supposedly rich, world – simmering beneath the surface, ready to blow up seemingly overnight, supposedly out of the blue. Like in Tunisia.