What Tunisia's Students Can Teach the Rest of North Africa


“I am a doctor. This country needs doctors. You see the disconnect.”

Recent events in Tunisia remind me of the words of one of Morocco’s "Diplômés Chômeurs." Swept up in a protest this past fall outside of Rabat's Parliament, I asked one young man to explain the words on his sign: There is a disconnect between youth and the supposedly democratic regime, he described, which leaves both the populace unhappy and the country underdeveloped. The human capital is there but the jobs are not.

Diplômés Chômeurs, literally “unemployed graduates," are a movement throughout the Maghreb region, getting stronger through tools of social media like Facebook and Twitter. When they protest in Morocco, with each discipline wearing a different color – blue for the doctors, pink for the lawyers, yellow for the teachers, etc. – they call for job creation. As today’s events in Tunis demonstrate, they are a force to be reckoned with.

Riots in Tunisia’s capital began a month ago when a college-educated young street vendor set himself on fire in protest when his livelihood was shut down by police demanding that he have a permit. As violence has wound up, Tunisian President Ben Ali has gone from using force against protesters, to allowing them to peaceably demonstrate, then back to a crackdown and an imposed curfew, closing all universities indefinitely, to dismissing his own cabinet, and finally disappearing from the country altogether on Friday with reports suggesting he flew to Malta.

The unrest in Tunisia is a microcosm of a greater regional threat because well-educated, but jobless graduates are more active and organized than ever. Police crackdowns in Algeria against economic protests earlier this month left 5 dead and over 800 injured. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika then had the nerve to touch the Holy Grail of Algerian youth: he suspended all professional soccer games in order to prevent youth organizing.  

The Arab Labor Organization reported in 2010 that Morocco and Algeria held the highest unemployment rates of university-educated graduates in the Arab world, at 26.8% and 19.3%, respectively. If youth in Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania credit the overthrow of the Ben Ali government to Tunisian students, then they are likely to attempt their own grassroots reforms.

With the economic crisis increasing unemployment rates all around the world, societies in less democratic states are more likely to lash out with violence and riots, because they feel that their voice is unheard in their country’s non-participatory system.

Students in the Maghreb are now teaching their leaders that a more creative and expedient response to unemployment is necessary in order to develop national infrastructure, and more importantly, to avoid a bloodbath like that which is unfolding in Tunisia. With structural unemployment affecting graduates across the world, youth are marching to battle, and they are armed with Tweets, status updates, and useless diplomas. This crisis is teaching us that the future is dim for regional security if the best and brightest have nothing better to do than light themselves on fire.

Photo Credit: Catherine Skroch