Empty Pockets Stoked Discontent In Egypt, Tunisia Egypt's economy has been growing, but most Egyptians, who live on about $2 a day, aren't benefiting from the country's growth. And the college educated face a 30 percent unemployment rate. Those factors, experts say, along with President Mubarak's never fully embracing economic reform, created a combustible brew.
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Empty Pockets Stoked Discontent In Egypt, Tunisia

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Empty Pockets Stoked Discontent In Egypt, Tunisia

Empty Pockets Stoked Discontent In Egypt, Tunisia

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Demonstrators in Egypt as well as Tunisia were motivated, in part, by a lack of jobs and economic opportunity, especially for the young.

And as NPR's John Ydstie reports, Egypt and other countries in the region have lagged behind in transforming themselves into modern economies.

JOHN YDSTIE: The lack of economic opportunity in Arab countries is not a new concern. It's been an issue for some time. Back in 2002, the U.N. Development Agency produced a report citing a lack of education, freedom and rights for women as factors holding back many Arab economies.

More recently, a Brookings Institution project focused on issues blocking the aspirations of young Arabs. Senior fellow Tarik Yousef was one of the project's directors.

Mr. TARIK YOUSEF (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): You have a large segment of the population of youth that is unable to make this important transition to being productive, happy adults and who at the same time happen to have no voice.

YDSTIE: Access to global media also means young Arabs are far more aware than they used to be that their countries have not been keeping up with the faster growing economies of Asia. That has stoked their discontent, says Zachary Karabell, president of River Twice Research, a financial consulting firm.

Mr. ZACHARY KARABELL (President, River Twice Research): The more awareness people have of others doing well, the more they are able to look at their own situation in a negative light and demand change.

YDSTIE: The irony is that the Egyptian economy seemed about ready to take the next step in economic development, says Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of the giant bond investor PIMCO. It has been opening up and growing faster in the past half decade, he says.

Mr. MOHAMED EL-ERIAN (Chief Executive Officer, PIMCO): Over the last few years we've seen much more progress than we have in a long time. However, as it turns out from what's happening in the street, this progress wasn't fast enough given what people were feeling.

YDSTIE: Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is hesitant to generalize too broadly about the economic challenges in Arab countries. Not all their challenges are the same, she says.

But she agrees with El-Erian that growth rates have been very respectable in Egypt recently, around six percent a year. The problem, she says, is that most Egyptians live on about $2 a day, and they aren't benefitting from the country's growth.

Ms. ISOBEL COLEMAN (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Its economic gains have really been concentrated among the wealthy elite, and you've just not seen the trickle-down that people are looking for.

YDSTIE: Add to that the alienation of the college-educated, who face an unemployment rate of 30 percent in Egypt, far higher than the rate for the less-educated. That creates a combustible brew.

Zachary Karabell says the problem is that President Mubarak flirted with economic reform but never fully embraced it.

Mr. KARABELL: In any reform, some vested interest loses out, and you have to be willing to take that on. If it's your own bureaucracy, if it's the army, something has to give, and in Egypt, nothing has given.

YDSTIE: Tarik Yousef, who is also the dean of the Dubai School of Government, sees another factor holding back Egypt and other Arab states. He says they've have been distracted by pressing security issues during the past decade.

Mr. YOUSEF: The war in Iraq, the war on terror and concerns about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the emergence of Iran has been both a distraction and has been a reason for why the bigger issues became secondary and increasingly absent from the policy debate.

YDSTIE: The debate over those bigger issues, economic and political opportunity, has now been taken out of the halls of government and into the streets, where the outcome is even more unpredictable.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.


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