In Morocco, Unemployment Can Be A Full-Time Job

Demonstrators carry posters of Abdelwahab Zaydoun, who set himself on fire and died from his burns Tuesday. Zaydoun was part of a movement protesting unemployment in Morocco. i i

Demonstrators carry posters of Abdelwahab Zaydoun, who set himself on fire and died from his burns Tuesday. Zaydoun was part of a movement protesting unemployment in Morocco. Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP
Demonstrators carry posters of Abdelwahab Zaydoun, who set himself on fire and died from his burns Tuesday. Zaydoun was part of a movement protesting unemployment in Morocco.

Demonstrators carry posters of Abdelwahab Zaydoun, who set himself on fire and died from his burns Tuesday. Zaydoun was part of a movement protesting unemployment in Morocco.

Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP

It is rush hour in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, and time for the march of unemployed college graduates.

They are part of a movement that has become a rite of passage. It's a path to a government career for a lucky few, even though it can take years.

"I have a degree, a master's degree in English, and I'm here ... idle without a job, without dignity, without anything," protester Abdul Rahim Momneh says.

During the Arab uprisings over the past year, political grievances have received much of the attention. But youth unemployment is also a crisis for every Arab government. In Morocco, the jobless rate is more than 30 percent for young people.

Last week, five jobless college graduates set themselves on fire to protest unemployment. One has since been reported dead. Self-immolation has become something of a trend in the region ever since a young Tunisian street vendor set himself alight in December 2010, an event that sparked the uprising there and served as a catalyst for other revolts.

Government employment is hardly a solution for joblessness, say the movement's critics. Morocco's bureaucracy is already bloated and unproductive; the huge government payroll is a financial drain, they argue.

Yet, under pressure from these protests, officials often give in, adding a few more positions. Organizers hand the government a list of the most dedicated activists to choose from.

An Expanding Movement

Every year, even more graduates swell the movement, hoping for the lifetime security and perks that come with a government job.

They gather in a park, dumping their backpacks. Each group has a slogan displayed on colored vests they wear to every march.

Mokhliss Tsouli is with the yellow group. He moved to the capital after earning a master's degree to join the protest full time. He says he protests four or five times a week. He says his yellow vest translates to the word "spark."

This permanent protest movement has become part of the landscape of the capital. It's a movement with strict rules and rewards. Organizers keep a tally. There are points for attendance and extra points for scuffles with the police. The points determine who gets to the top of the list and gets a job, Tsouli says.

"Sometimes there are students who come once a week, and they are not really activists," he says. "So we are updating the list that we will give to the government, to the decision-makers."

The country's new government has vowed to tackle unemployment. It was elected after Morocco's Arab Spring moment last year, when widespread discontent brought tens of thousands to the streets. There was no revolution, but King Mohammed VI responded with a series of limited changes.

Activists gather to march against youth unemployment in the Moroccan capital of Rabat. Protesters wear colored vests with the slogan of their respective groups. i i

Activists gather to march against youth unemployment in the Moroccan capital of Rabat. Protesters wear colored vests with the slogan of their respective groups. Deborah Amos/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Deborah Amos/NPR
Activists gather to march against youth unemployment in the Moroccan capital of Rabat. Protesters wear colored vests with the slogan of their respective groups.

Activists gather to march against youth unemployment in the Moroccan capital of Rabat. Protesters wear colored vests with the slogan of their respective groups.

Deborah Amos/NPR

Jobs, Not A Revolution

But don't compare that political movement with the aims of these jobless college grads, says Nasreen el Hannch.

"Oh, it's not the same. We are totally different because we are just looking for jobs," she says. "They are looking [to] change Morocco; we are not looking for change, only to find a job. So, we hope."

There's no hope the job crisis will go away without substantial political and economic change. Until then, a little social blackmail means at least some of these students will get work.

The government has already pledged to hire 20,000 more workers, but there are many more protesters, and those left unemployed would have reason to keep up the pressure.

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