In 2008 I was speaking to a young man waiting tables at a Cairo hotel. He had graduated from an Egyptian university with a degree in hospitality and tourism, spoke fluent English and very good French. Yet he was resigned to the fact that, despite this education, he would be working as a waiter for at least ten years, if not longer, before even being able to consider moving into a management position. He knew he could be doing more, but was willing to accept this course as his position was highly coveted and there were few other jobs available to him.
Prior to December 2010, analysts and observers of Middle East regional issues raised concerns about the large youth populations across the Middle East. These nations have very high numbers of young men and women, but as was often warned, did not have economies dynamic enough to absorb their young people into the labor force. Neither did these young people have political space or legal recourse to voice their grievances. It was unclear just how frustrated people, especially the youth, had become.
In 2011 the frustrations of the younger generation in the Middle East boiled over into the political sphere. Dramatic scenes in Tahrir Square and in Tunis led to the overthrow of long-time dictators. In wealthy Gulf states, governments responded by increasing public sector salaries and social benefits to appease their populations. Egypt and Tunisia, lacking the natural resource revenue available to producer states, cannot provide such lucrative public sector jobs and benefits, despite continued demand for them. But even Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil producer, understands that these policies are not long-term solutions for the 64 percent of its citizens who are under the age of 30 and is now investing heavily in education and economic diversification.
Language is essential. Words in one’s native language convey depths of meaning that translations obscure. Experience is priceless. Knowledge gained through practical experience provides lessons needed to overcome the next challenge.
Guided by these principles, CIPE’s “MENA Info” program has become the foremost Arabic-language internet resource on topics of democratic and market-oriented reform. Throughout the Middle East, when practitioners and scholars search Google for materials on جمعيات الأعمال (Business Associations), ريادية الأعمال (Entrepreneurship), حوكمة الشركات (Corporate Governance), and حشد التأييد(Policy Advocacy), CIPE’s dedicated Arabic-language website, CIPE-Arabia.org, is the first result returned.
As the fourth annual Global Entrepreneurship Week is underway we would be remiss not to recognize Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian entrepreneur whose frustration and self-immolation inspired protests throughout the Middle East.
Bouazizi was a produce vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid, in central Tunisia, who at the age of 26, was the sole breadwinner for his family. As the owner of a small business operating in the informal sector, he was subject to repeated police harassment, excessive fines, demands for bribes, and the confiscation of his goods and equipment. With no recourse to defend himself, the harassment caused humiliation and despair. On the day Bouazizi lit himself on fire, a policewoman effectively put him out of business by confiscating his produce and weight scale.
Renowned Peruvian economist and reformer Hernando de Soto recently authored an article in the Financial Times, where he illustrates the institutional barriers that kept Bouazizi out of the formal sector, leading to the abuse by the Tunisian authorities. According to de Soto it would have taken Bouazizi 142 days and $3,233 to register his business. The $3,233 is roughly 12 times his monthly net income. Bouazizi was also unable to buy a truck to expand his business, since he could not record the deed to his family home in order to use the property as collateral.
As Egyptians and Tunisians begin to grapple with the complicated issues of constitution writing, electoral laws, and the role of Islam in the political sphere, they should not lose sight of the circumstances that led them here. Issues such as property rights, access to capital, and fair treatment under the law all have enormous effects on people’s daily lives as Bouazizi and the revolutions in the Middle East this year have emphatically demonstrated. Entrepreneurship, the ability to start and build one’s own business, has the potential to be a driving force behind economic growth in the Middle East. The entrepreneurial energy and desire exists, but governments in the Middle East should seek to facilitate rather than hinder this enterprising spirit.
This story also appeared on the Community of Young Entrepreneurs blog.
Democracy is… “empowering the individual”
Democracy is… “a movement of the people”
Democracy is… “a smoothie”
Democracy is… “the fearless man”
Democracy is… “working together as parts of one whole body”
Democracy is… “the Path”
The 2nd Annual Democracy Video Challenge was launched on September 15, International Democracy Day at the United Nations. The Democracy Video Challenge represents a unique partnership in CIPE’s 25 year history, comprising democracy and youth organizations, the film and entertainment industry, academia, and the U.S. Government. This diverse coalition exemplifies the wide-ranging commitment not only to bring new voices to the discussion of “Democracy is…”, but the actual cooperation necessary to strengthen democratic institutions around the globe.