It was a cold and rainy afternoon in Tunisia in February of 2011. My colleagues and I were on mission, driving from the Ministry of Employment to our next meeting. We got stuck! The street was blocked with hundreds of youth chanting “3amal” (“work” in Arabic). They were outside one of the biggest public employment offices in Tunis demanding work, often violently.
Blood pressures are rising in the Middle East and North Africa and they show little sign of cooling down. They began simmering over shishas in el kahawi (coffeehouses) in Tahrir Square, Eqypt; steaming over fried malsouka snacks in Habib Bourguiba Street, Tunisia; and bubbling over smoke filled debates at Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain. People from all classes and walks of life are equally affected.
One day on a recent mission to Tripoli, Libya – after an early start and a hectic morning of meetings – I went with the World Bank’s Representative to a wonderful Turkish Restaurant in the heart of Tripoli to have lunch and to discuss the progress of the mission. As we were dinning, our waiter engaged in polite conversation with my Tunisian colleague in French.
The Middle East and North Africa region is 60 percent urbanized compared to the global average of 52 percent and is home to one of the world’s most rapidly expanding populations. By 2030, a 45 percent increase of MENA’s urban population will add another 106 million people to urban centres.
“If we are able to say that a poor, majority Muslim, and conservative society is capable of making a democracy of international standard, other countries in the region will have no excuse not to follow us,” says Amira Yahyaoui. “But Tunisia won’t succeed unless we continue to be bold. We must be audacious in our ambitions.”
A forthcoming World Bank report entitled “Building Effective Employment Services for Unemployed Youth in the Middle East and North Africa”, concludes that in order to help unemployed workers in the region obtain the skills required for the available jobs, there is an urgent need to reform existing employment programs.
For defenders of women’s rights in Tunisia, the figure of Tahar Haddad looms large. For generations of women’s rights activists in Tunisia, he has been seen as the brains and heart behind the country’s progressive legal status of women. Houda Bouriel, director of the Cultural Center of Tahar Haddad in Tunis, notes that for Haddad, “a society in which women are not liberated is not truly free.”
When the Arab Spring broke out and regimes began to fall under the pressure of their own citizens, a revolution on social media also took hold. During this critical period, the use of Facebook and Twitter was ubiquitous, especially in Egypt and Tunisia. Social networks and cell phones played an important role.
From the pyramids showcasing the world’s first great civilization, to the sandy white beaches of the southern Mediterranean, religious sites and pristine eco-reserves, the Middle East and North Africa region is chock full of unique tourist attractions. Tourism in MENA does not only satisfy the hedonistic wishes of vacationers – it is an important sector for economic development and job creation.
The end of 2011 was undeniably a momentous time across the Arab World with uprisings first emerging in Tunisia and Egypt and then spreading to Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Expectations of 2012 were high as old regimes were discarded and new governments brought with them hopes of more equitable societies and opportunities for all.