Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi did not initially join the protests that led to Hosni Mubarak’s ousting in 2011. Neither did Morocco’s Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane; he made clear his support for the country’s monarch, King Mohammed VI, who eventually gave up some key powers to Benkirane. Libya’s Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur was living in the US when civil war broke out in his homeland; Tunisia’s leader Moncef Marzouki was living in exile in France when former president Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali fled the country.
Today, thanks to the wars fought in North Africa in 2011, each of these men now lead their countries. The young men and women who called for political, social, and economic change in the region in 2011 by taking to the streets and dying in droves to achieve their aims, were just that – young – while the people who benefited most from the uprisings are not. Mursi and Abushagur are both 61 years old and Marzouki is 67. Benkirane is youthful by comparison, a mere 58, although he too will be in his 60s when his first term as prime minister is complete.
According to the International Labour Organisation, some 10 million young North Africans will enter the job market between 2010 and 2020. The region’s sexagenarian leaders will face many challenges over the next few years, but few as pressing or as complex as job creation and economic reform. They will not be aided by Europe, which helped ease the pressure in the 2000s as its economy boomed.
With the eurozone now in crisis, many North Africans are returning home from France, Spain and elsewhere seeking employment as work dries up abroad.
If they do not act quickly North Africa’s new leaders risk looking disconnected from a generation that has put them in power. It is a generation that has size on its side, and has recently learned how powerful that can be in ousting unpopular leaders. The new rulers need to find a way of keeping their promises for social justice, economic growth and job creation.