Young, Jobless and Angry

The future of the Middle East may come down to how it helps young people find work.

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(Vadim Ghirda/AP)
Protesters chant anti-government slogans, silhouetted by the light of flares in Taksim square, in Istanbul, Turkey, late Wednesday, June 12, 2013. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

This month, yet another group of protesters have taken to the streets highlighting what they view as increasingly authoritarian rule, this time in Turkey. But what's interesting about the latest round of upheaval in the broader Middle East is not necessarily the geographic location of the protests (though that's important) but the demographic makeup of the protesters.

From Tunisia to Egypt to Syria and now Turkey, the common characteristics of those pushing for change are increasingly hard to ignore. They are young, urban and globally connected. And they are angry.

Young & Jobless

As population growth slows across much of the Western world, the opposite has been true in places like the Middle East and North Africa, where about two-thirds of the population is under the age of 35. While a young and able workforce should be an economic boon (the U.S. and Europe are increasingly reliant on an immigrant work force to keep their economies sputtering along), widespread lack of education and, more importantly, few opportunities for employment in the MENA region make these young people a threat to their governments. It is estimated that roughly 30 percent of young people in the Middle East and North Africa are currently unemployed, while 40 percent are considered "inactive," making the region a powder keg for unrest.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

And there's no easy solution. The World Bank says that about 85 million new jobs are needed to reverse the trend. While Turkey, through sound economic policies, has managed to weather the recent global downturn, the International Labor Organization reported nearly 20 percent youth unemployment there in 2011. Other countries in the region have not even fared that well. This is particularly true in Egypt, which has failed to achieve even the relatively modest reforms needed to obtain a much-needed $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund following a major blow to its economy after the Arab Spring uprisings.

With nothing but time on their hands, the restless youth of the MENA region will continue to push back against government policies that don't provide real opportunities moving forward. This was true when Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in 2011 and remains so today, as protesters seep back into Istanbul's Taksim Square. According to most economic forecasts, it's likely to get worse before it gets better.

Urban

The population boom in the Middle East and North Africa has also occurred at a time of rapid urbanization. In both Turkey and Tunisia, for example, roughly 70 percent of the population lives in crowded urban centers. In Syria, where a civil war has claimed the lives of nearly 90,000 people according to the United Nations, more than half of the population lives in urban areas.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Not only do growing numbers of city dwellers place great strain on the capacity of governments to provide goods, services and opportunities to their urban citizens, the trend also creates a gap between urbanized and rural populations. In Turkey, for example, many have attributed the defiance of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan in the face of urban protests to his support from the rural and less cosmopolitan and less secular areas of the country.

Globally Connected

This week in the heart of Taksim Square in Istanbul, a satellite truck meant to boost the signals for protesters using wireless communications to make their case to the world was set alight. That moment adequately highlighted the importance of the Internet and social media to the global urban youth of the region.

In the U.S. we often refer to this generation as "Millennials" or, as pollster John Zogby calls them "First Globals." In reality, these terms can be used to describe people under the age of 30 around the world who have largely come of age with access to information about how people around the world live.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the Obama Administration Do More in Syria?]

Here's Zogby's definition:

For First Globals, increased access to information has created a heightened awareness of the world's challenges, often leading to a deeper commitment to social and economic justice. The participatory, inclusive nature of the Internet, particularly social networks, has enabled First Globals to make their voices heard on a larger scale. They connect across geographic, socio-economic, religious, and ethnic barriers, in many cases becoming more empathetic and more likely to act.

It's not a coincidence that the protests in Istanbul began with environmentalists opposed to the destruction of a park but grew into something much bigger, or that the protests that toppled the Egyptian government commenced with secular youth but eventually included members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The shared experience of urban, connected youths with limited opportunities, coupled with a general distrust of government, is a source of unity.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Properly Handled the Arab Spring?]

How governments of the region choose to respond (both pro-actively and reactively), to these new demographic and social realities, as well as how Western nations choose to engage, will certainly help determine whether we'll be seeing more or less unrest across the broader Middle East.

But if this week's events Taksim Square are any indication, it may not be governments who will write the future of the region. Indeed, it appears that the global urban youth have a lot more fireworks in store.

Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of Great Decisions in Foreign Policy on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan.

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