Look closely at the faces of protestors surging into the streets of Cairo and you'll see that many of them are strikingly young.
Their passionate demands for freedom, democracy and an end to corruption and autocratic rule ring out loud and clear. Yet only when we look at the cold, hard numbers of youth unemployment and social marginalization in Egypt can we fully understand the powerful underlying causes driving these young people to topple their government.
In Egypt — a country of 78 million people — the median age is 24. The vast majority of these Egyptian youths are struggling to find a job, support their families and help shape the future of their country. Their failure to realize these aspirations is now bubbling over.
Finding a job is particularly difficult. It is estimated that one in four of Egypt's young men and nearly 60 percent of its young women can't find work. Often, it is the best educated who are having the most difficult time. Some 700,000 new university graduates in Egypt every year are chasing fewer than 200,000 jobs. So even those young people fortunate enough to find employment have to settle for jobs that in no way correspond to their qualifications or aspirations.
Economic marginalization, coupled with the often-brutal suppression of young people's voices in the public sphere, helped spark the uprising in Tunisia a little more than a month ago. The appalling spectacle of an unemployed 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor committing suicide in front of a government building — by setting himself on fire — helped crystallize the utter frustration and growing despair of his generation. His action sparked a revolution against Tunisia's repressive and corrupt leaders, who were forced to flee the country — events that helped mobilize and embolden thousands of young people in Egypt who today are demanding real change in a country where few thought change was possible.
While current events in the Middle East appear to have taken governments there by surprise, the region's leaders cannot plead ignorance of these pressing problems. Countless studies and reports highlight the historically high levels of joblessness and marginalization among young people in the Middle East.
At least 90 percent of Egypt's unemployed are between ages 15 and 29; nearly a third of Tunisia's college graduates can't find employment; and at least 35 percent of Palestinian youths are out of work. A recent assessment of a dozen low-income communities in Jordan found that 1 in 5 young people in those neighborhoods can't find jobs; that the level of young people's participation in civic activities is shockingly low (less than 4 percent in some places); and that the majority of social services do not come close to meeting the needs of the young. In part as a response to that report, Jordan has launched its largest initiative to date to address these social and economic issues and further empower its youth.
Nor can today's government leaders and policymakers argue that they don't know what the solutions are to rising frustration and anger among their countries' young people. Time and again, innovative and comprehensive job training programs for unemployed youth — from the Middle East to Latin America to Europe — have demonstrated real success when they combine life skills such as teamwork and problem solving with practical job skills; when they work with local companies to ensure the training matches local business needs; and when internships and job placement assistance are a required part of the program. The result: More youth are finding jobs and keeping them.
An example: One of my organization's comprehensive youth employment programs in Latin America and the Caribbean, called entra21, has placed more than half of its 20,000 trainees in decent jobs and is preparing an additional 50,000 unemployed youths to join the job market.
We've also seen how effective programs that engage young people as active citizens in their communities and boost their leadership skills have lessened the violence and empowered this younger generation to press for positive change in their societies. Many of these young people are now launching their own efforts to solve the toughest problems we face — from saving the environment to promoting religious tolerance to creating jobs.
Consider Muhammad Shahzad Khan, 24, an emerging youth leader in Pakistan who has founded his own organization to reduce religious extremism and sectarian violence in his country. He has recently trained more than 1,350 young peer educators as "peace builders" throughout Pakistan, and they are reaching out to some 5,000 youths with a message of tolerance and nonviolence.
In Egypt, a young social entrepreneur, Raghda El-Ebrashi, recognized early on the enormous problems of unemployment and marginalization facing the young people in her country and launched an initiative aimed at strengthening young people's job skills and offering them opportunities to start their own businesses.
We have provided training and support for both of these remarkable young leaders.
Something enormously powerful has been unleashed across the Arab world. But governments everywhere should be on notice that they can no longer ignore their countries' young people. They want their voices to be heard, and they want a real commitment to respond to their ideas for concerted and sustained investments in their futures. That's how to prevent violent upheavals and social unrest. Just ask President Hosni Mubarak.
William S. Reese is president and CEO of the Baltimore-based International Youth Foundation, which works to prepare young people for better lives in nearly 80 countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Palestine. His e-mail is email@example.com.