Shifting political economies of grievances: the generation of state cutbacks comes of age

This blog is written by Dr. Nisreen Salti, American University in Beirut and Melani Cammett, Brown University

The uprisings that spread across the Arab countries, leading to the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt and putting incumbent rulers on guard across the region, are widely depicted as youth uprisings. Images of the crowds of protesters often show a sea of young faces. But young people across the world tend to take part in demonstrations and protests at a higher rate than their elders simply because they have more leisure time and fewer responsibilities to work and family, among other factors. To what extent, then, were the Arab uprisings truly youth movements, reflecting youth-specific grievances? Do the youth in Tunisia and Egypt show higher levels of dissatisfaction with government performance than older cohorts? Or are the grievances of the youth similar to those of other generations?

Another common reading of the uprisings characterizes them as movements of the disenchanted middle class. This view, advanced by the likes oNisreen Saltif Diwan, Gelvin, and Dai, holds that a large middle class emerged in the decades after independence, due primarily to state employment, important strides in education, and large-scale improvements in the provision of healthcare. This class is also thought to bear the brunt of the radical state spending cuts, the scaling back of public employment of the last few decades, and the failure of these economies to provide sufficient high quality jobs to enable social advancement. Is the middle class more disenchanted than other socio-economic classes? And is it most aggrieved about issues related to education and job markets, which are more closely linked with upward mobility than other sectors?

To understand more fully how Tunisians and Egyptians view their societies, we turned to public opinion polls in which over 7,000 people were surveyed in both Tunisia and Egypt between 2009 and 2012. Respondents were asked about their satisfaction with educational services and the quality of schools, with healthcare services, and with the availability and quality of job opportunities, among aspects of social and economic life.

The pictures that emerge from the responses are somewhat different for Egypt and for Tunisia, suggesting that there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for the Arab uprisings: Egyptians between the ages of 15 and 35 were more disgruntled than their older countrymen. To the extent that discontent with education, healthcare and job opportunities pushed Egyptian youth to protest, it is likely that they were expressing their own concerns and not simply transmitting the grievances of their parents.

Yet the youth were not the only aggrieved segment of Egyptian society. The Egyptian middle class also expressed higher levels of dissatisfaction than other socio-economic groups in Egypt, and its disaffection cut across all sectors, including health, education and labor markets. Thus, the middle class hypothesis also seems to hold in the case of Egypt. Indeed, when it comes to jobs – the key route to social mobility – the middle class youth reported the greatest sense of dissatisfaction.

The picture is different in Tunisia. Tunisia shows large generational differences in people’s satisfaction with education, the sector with which youth have the most direct contact. Unlike the case of Egypt, there seem to be no clear class distinctions in levels of satisfaction with healthcare and education. When it comes to the job market, however, class matters. Perceptions of the job market seem to suggest a changing profile of the Tunisian middle class: while younger cohorts in the middle class have similar opinions as their peers from different classes on labor market opportunities, the middle class above 35 years of age expresses greater satisfaction with the job situation in their countries. In Tunisia, this emerging inter-generational difference may arise because older members of the middle class still benefit from the more generous social contract of the post-independence decades, leading them to report greater satisfaction with job market opportunities than other classes, and than the younger generation of the middle class.

In short, while public opinion polls of the perception of social services are consistent with the “youth hypothesis” in Egypt, they also show general middle class disenchantment with multiple aspects of social and economic life beyond those sectors linked most directly to social mobility. In Tunisia, on the other hand, the youth hypothesis seems to hold more weight. Young people have the most negative perceptions of educational services, irrespective of class. In both countries however, people’s perceptions of the labor market are at the intersection of both hypotheses. With the coming of age of the generation of state rollback, differences across age groups in satisfaction are starkest for the middle class, a class that can no longer rely on state services in its aspirations of ascent.

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