The immolation of the Middle East
By Shaden Elkhatib, Race-Talk contributor,
The Youth in the Middle East are hungry for food, jobs, and social justice. On December 17, Tunisian police confiscated the produce stand that Mohamed Bouazizi used to make his very small living because he did not have the necessary permit to sell fruits and vegetables. This young, college educated man, was one of millions in the Middle East living in poverty and struggling to meet his basic needs. After the Tunisian government refused to issue him a permit, he set himself on fire in a desperate act of protest. Although Mohamed had a college degree, there is a dearth of jobs for college educated young people; the unemployment rate in Tunisia, at 14%, is already high but for the young it is even higher at 25%.
Mohammed, like the majority of college educated young adults in the Middle East, found that there were few professional jobs available in Tunisia after receiving his college degree and was faced with no other option to support himself except for a makeshift produce stand that he managed to put together. It is through this desperate action of self immolation to protest the hopelessness of his situation, that Mohammed ignited a firestorm throughout Tunisia and which now in turn has reverberated throughout the Middle East.
Tunisian protests are bringing in to question the class system that is reflected throughout the region. The gap between rich and poor, the rising unemployment, the hunger, and the desperation of people to stay afloat are becoming more evident. This is especially the case among the youth where throughout the Middle East a recent study done by Deloitte & Touche estimated the unemployment of recent graduates at 23%. People in Jordan complain about their inability to gain basic access to water and the rising costs of food. The Syrians and Lebanese complain of rising costs, unemployment, underemployment, and poverty. The Palestinians and Iraqis are suffering through endless wars, lack of access to basic needs such as medicine and food. The Egyptians suffer through unemployment, homes and buildings that constantly collapse, and housing shortages that leave many living in graveyards. The one common thread between each of these nations is the wealth of these governments and their inability to serve their people. Over the years, corruption and repression has become the trademark of these governments.
Mohamed didn’t just set fire to himself; he set fire to the entire Middle East. Protestors in every Middle Eastern nation are waking up to a new reality, a new truth that without the rebirth of activism and the extreme passion for change, their human rights will never be restored. Protesters in the Jordanian cities of Ma’an and Karak are raising their voices over the decrease of government subsidies that kept food costs down. Algerians are taking to the streets over the housing crisis that has left thousands still without homeless after the 2003 earthquake and the rising price of food. Egyptians are calling for a change in a political system that calls for policies which only induce poverty and marginalize the poor. The voices are getting louder, a sign that there is new intolerance for social injustice.
When bread becomes a luxury item, when access to water becomes impossible, when people can no longer afford their basic needs while the leaders of their governments flourish, then frustration does nothing but build. The act of immolation was a deep cry of desperation heard across every Arab nation but the question still remains – is this the point at which this frustration finally turns to action that brings about necessary change?
Shaden Elkhatib was born in Kuwait in 1974 and came to the U.S. as a child. She owns her own business in the Houston area and facilitates Cultural Diversity Courses for University of Phoenix. She is currently working on a book about cultural assimilation from an Arab American perspective. She holds a Masters in Organizational Development and Bachelors in Management.