The Awakening of the Arab World

Earlier this week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a prophetic stark warning to Arab leaders: either enact genuine economic and political reforms or face growing unrest and rebellion.

"If leaders don't offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum," she said. "Extremist elements, terrorist groups and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there appealing for allegiance and competing for influence."

A day later, following weeks of violent protest, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's president for more than 23 years, ceded power as he fled to Saudi Arabia.

After generations of apathy and stagnation, the Arab people are finally rising up. As we witnessed with the self-immolation of a 26-year-old fruit vendor in the city of Sidi Bouzid, whose actions provoked a massive wave of demonstrations and rioting. And it took us all by surprise including the Tunisian government.

Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man who set himself on fire was a university graduate who, like so many others, was unable to find decent employment.

He tried to make a living selling fruit, but even that proved impossible when the police stopped him from selling without a permit. In desperation he decided to end his life in a symbolic gesture.

And also with Hamada Ben Amour, a 22-year-old rapper who was arrested for releasing a song on the internet titled 'President, your people are dying' that talks about the problems of the youth and unemployment.

The song came out as students, professionals and youths mounted a series of protests over a shortage of jobs and restrictions on public freedoms.

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi, says Tunisian people deserved to be thanked twice: "for proving that the Arab street is not dead as many had expected and is capable of waging an intifada and making sacrifices for change, and for exposing the Arab regimes that claimed to care about human rights and the values of justice and democracy."

With the emergence of a large layer of educated youth who have no job prospects and no future, the Arab people have reached a boiling point.

They have had enough of chronic unemployment; economic deprivation; rising food prices; insufficient public investment; rampant corruption; and an authoritarian political system that gave Ben Ali twenty three years of corrupt rule.

In Egypt, the President Hosni Mubarak will have held power for three decades this year, and is getting set for another term. In Libya, Muammar Gadaffi has been in power since 1969. The Assads have ruled Syria since 1970.

"The widespread demonstrations in Tunisia" writes political analyst Rami Khouri "mirror a universal pattern of change by citizens who reach a breaking point and go out into the street to brave the bullets of the eternal ruler's military and security services. When citizens are no longer afraid of the ruler's bullets, the ruler's days are numbered."

Chatham House' Middle East expert Nadim Shehadi says, "It was an unsustainable economic and political model that has survived for over 30 years and with numerous equivalents in the region. Its persistence has done countless damage and its demise will hopefully serve as an example."

The biggest challenge facing the Arab world today is youth unemployment. The region has the highest unemployment rate in the world. The current unemployment rate stands at sixteen per cent, eighty per cent of that figure is made up of a youth population of 130 million. A staggering twenty five percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 29 are unemployed.

According to the Economic World Bank Report of the Arab world, Arab states need to create 100 million jobs by 2020 to meet the needs of the young people entering the job market. With a population of 85 million people, Egypt needs to create at least one million new jobs for the more than 750,000 young people entering the employment market each year.

Unemployment is affecting over 20 million people in the Arab world. This situation has also increased poverty rates, which is estimated to affect some 50 percent of the total population in the Arab world.

Unlike China who knew how to develop a booming economy even under its communist umbrella, the Arab regimes' shortsightedness has failed to move the region economically and politically forward.

With Tunisia's spontaneous revolution, maybe true Arab secular democracy will finally emerge. Let's see what happens.