When I saw pictures of the young rioters in Tunisia and Algeria, I thought I was looking at pictures of young rioters in England or France. The Tunisian and Algerian rioters made the same gestures as their Western European counterparts—perhaps there are not all that many ways to riot—and dressed in precisely the same fashion, that is to say, in international slum-youth costume. It’s nice to know that the world is drawing closer together.
Different as the societies of the Maghreb and Western Europe might at first appear to be, they share at least some important features—for example, high rates of youth unemployment—and for the same reasons. In fact, when one considers that about half of the population of Tunisia and Algeria is under 25, it is possible that they do better than European countries such as Spain, France, and Britain in absorbing young people into the labor market.
Societies on both sides of the Mediterranean suffer from what one might call diplomatosis. This dangerous disease is caused by the assumption that, since a modern economy requires educated people, the more educated people it can call upon—as measured by the average number of years in school—the more productive that economy will be. On this view, education is in itself the motor of growth, and the demand for educated labor will automatically keep up with, if not outstrip, the supply.
The story of the young Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi, whose suicidal self-immolation was the spark that set Tunisia aflame, is instructive. He was 26 and had a degree in computer science. Like 200,000 other university graduates in Tunisia (in a population of 10 million), he could not find a job. He then tried selling fruits and vegetables from a stall. However, he did not have bureaucratic permission to do this—such permission being bestowed by other university graduates, lucky or well-connected enough to have found jobs in the public-sector bureaucracy. The police constantly harassed him because he didn’t have the requisite licenses. It is said that he set fire to himself when a policeman spat in his face.
No policy could be more dangerous, more certain ultimately to produce a social explosion, than to educate young people for many years and deny them first the opportunity to earn a living that they believe is commensurate with their education, and then the opportunity to earn a living at all. But this is the policy that many countries persist in following on both sides of the Mediterranean.
From one point of view, it is heartening that the current riots in Tunisia and Algeria appear devoid of religious motivation. But the Salafists must surely regard them with glee, for the young indignant easily turn to false messiahs. For the moment, the rioters are demanding that the government find work for the unemployed (the president of Tunisia has promised a job to Mohammed Bouazizi’s mother, whose other children, likewise educated, are also unemployed). The penny is not likely to drop soon regarding the fact that governments don’t create jobs; at best, they create the conditions in which jobs can be created. The future of Europe, I fear, can be discerned in Tunis and Algiers.