From Egypt to Europe: We Can No Longer Ignore Disaffected Youth

By now most everyone is familiar with the circumstances that brought down Hosni Mubarak in Egypt: widespread unemployment, huge numbers of disaffected youth, and extreme poverty helped fuel the uprising against his regime. What most of us miss are the similarities between the situation of youth in Egypt and their Roma peers in Europe.

“We don’t want what we have.” This was a young Egyptian’s sharply uttered demand for change during the revolutionary protests. On the heels of Tunisia, the youth revolution brought historic change to Egypt—ousting a dictator who ruled for thirty years—that continues to reverberate throughout the region. Nondemocratic regimes can no longer ignore the jobless and frustrated youth in the North Africa and the Middle East. But the ushering in of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe more than 20 years ago, has not made life of Roma youth any better than what Mubarak made for "his sons, the youths of Egypt."

Data from the United Nations shows the striking similarities: one quarter of both Egyptian and Roma population is between 18 and 29. Seventeen percent of young Egyptians have not completed basic education and 10 percent have never enrolled in school. Equally shocking numbers plague Europe, where 21 percent of Roma have not completed primary education, 9.5 percent never attended school. Without proper schooling, the fate of unemployment and poverty is unavoidable. No community, or country for that matter, can progress with the youth living in poverty.

Paradoxically, in Central and Eastern Europe, communist dictatorship was more generous to young Roma. While  governments denied freedoms, young Roma had better schooling and more chances to find jobs. The collapse of communism meant the collapse of these opportunities. This has created a collective memory that gives Roma youth no reason to believe in democracy, and to their parents it gives a legitimate reason to feel nostalgic for a sense of material security delivered by communism.

As compared to their Egyptian peers, young Roma face an additional hurdle—they are subject to ethnic discrimination in every country of Europe. It starts from the very first moments of their lives—even before they have left their mother’s womb. Pregnant mothers either cannot afford health care or face medical professionals who mistreat them. The cycle of discrimination continues as young Roma are placed in "special" classes for children with special needs—despite having none—rejected by other pupils, and biased treatment of teachers. From a very young age, Roma are already at a severe disadvantage in the labor market as compared with their peers.

These circumstances are not the exception but the rule for almost every person of Roma origin.

Roma are the youngest ethnic community in Europe, with birth-rate twice the average of majority families. The UN shows that the median age for Roma is 19.3 years, compared to 33.6 for the overall population. Roma demographics are not just about population growth but substantial labor force and other socio-economic consequences. The UN warned already in 2002 that if significant improvements in Roma access to education are not achieved soon, labor forces in Central and Eastern Europe by 2015 will have large and growing unskilled and uneducated components. This will generate significant amounts of structural unemployment. We are already in 2011 and have not seen significant improvements that will prevent the worst-case scenario.

Furthermore, the Roma youth represent not only labor but also political potential. Political parties, both those in power and those fighting for it, recognize the power of Roma votes and traditionally buy such votes cheaply. Despite this, over the last 20 years the internal process of political emancipation of Roma has become evident through the increased number of young Roma civil society leaders and advocates. The youth revolution in Tunisia and Egypt is definitely an inspiration and encouragement for the yet insufficiently organized young Roma to demand change.

This year, the European Union will supply national governments with a policy framework and money to turn poverty into equity, and discrimination into equality. The success of this framework will depend on the political will of governments and their ability to design and implement policies and that use these funds to compensate decades of injustice. Moreover, European democracies must keep their promise of equality of opportunities and future for all. Only then—despite the similarities—young Roma have a reason not to follow in the path of Egypt’s youth, but instead a reason to cheer “We believe in what we have.”

5 Comments

Dear Mr. Jovanovic, Thank you for this text.For me, it is very interesting your comparison young Roma with their Egyptian peers. We as a members of Roma population should learn much from phenomenon of Egyptian and Libyan revolutions.
Economic crises caused that many European states and their residents becoming poorer. When the growing ethnic tensions and increases the inter ethnics distance, European national minded political parties blame Roma people for their poverty. We don't have any representative Roma party on any European level that would be capable to fight against such attitudes and who would be able to raise national consciousness of Roma. Roma member is not familiar what is being taken in their name. It is necessary to raise capacity of young Roma with clear background who would be trained to obtain political skills and knowledge at the prominent universities. They will be able in the future to set clear indicators of progress and take action of monitoring and evaluation of projects of European Union being undertaken in their name.
Best regards,
Dejan Dimitrov,Novi Sad, Serbia

Mr. Jovanovic, you are right about all of this. Well said. As inspired by the young people of Egypt, I support all Roma doing whatever you can to help each other, since help from governments will take a long time. You are doing this already, and I salute you for it. You teach each other, help each other, are respectful to each other, cooperate economically, strengthen each other, stand up again and again to insist on respect. Never give up. As in Egypt, no-one can take your dignity away.

The uprisings in Roma, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and the bloodiest one so far in Libya are rooted for rooted on the ineptness and rotten corruption of their governments in responding to the demands and aspirations of the people.

The common demand for equality and economic opportunities - for more jobs, education, and health care can't be addressed, for these governments, if not in deficits,the despotic leaders feel secured of their entrenched powers.

But the youth, the students, always ae in the forefront of uprisings to cast out these corrupt and leaders.

In the Philippines, late in the '60s the students
were on marches in major streets in Metro Manila and cities all over he country to protest the corruption and US-backed Marcos despotic regime until the strongman declared Martial Law in 1972.
So many of the leaders of this uprisings were incarcerated in prisons,tortured,if not killed or just disappeared.

After almost 25 years that we deposed Mr Marcos, the country's population is still wallowing in poverty, among other social problems.

The same is what happening in Egypt.The youth-led uprising that booted out HMubarak, was taken under
military rule.While there is calmness in the streets, their freedom to assemble and protest are now under siege by the military leadership.Its worse than under HMubarak.

On the other hand, to avert, if not appease the uprisings in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the kings
ordered for outright distribution of 1500 dinars to each and every citizen, and the appropriation of 37billion dollar for social services to the oil rich kingdom of Saudia. A mere palliative
solutions to the centuries-old problems.

Your article is timely.The people are receiving
so little from what they have.The nature's resources are practically owned by these monarchs
living in ostentatious ways.

Now is the time for the governments to make radical changes within the core of leaderships, before the sovereign people will rise up and topple them down.

Thanks a lot for a nice article!

Though there is a growing evidence that dissatisfied young individuals are the driving power of revolutions, national governments are not hurrying to make corresponding decisions. It concerns not only the European Union but Russia and other regions as well, even though ethnical discrimination, at least visually, does not take place.

For instance, a number of my peers willing to emigrate is growing from year to year. Paradoxically, Eastern Europe labor markets do need qualified workforce. The problem is that administration is dramatically non-efficient.

Imil Nurutdinov, Tatarstan, Russia

Well thank you for looking on these exciting events in Africa from this side!

yeas, finding parallels with revolutionary states and turnovers in Africa is very appealing, especially for minorities in Europe suffering in poverty, lack of education, lack of jobs and discrimination, and even more in era of deilusions in wider scale, and narrower in state of constant lack of organized Roma who would have even this idea of rebellion, and would believe that something like this is necessary and possible.

I would say that because we don’t have strongly in our context “We don’t want what we have.”, we don’t even have expectations from so called democratic societies to be fulfilled as second best and to say -ok, we wont some changes, but don’t wont this kind of violent changes still, “We believe in what we have.”

I don’t believe that in everyday life we even have so much as idea that democracy will really keep its promise of equality of opportunities and future for all. i belive most of us are settling with fact that it will be just for few of us, Roma.

Sometimes I think we are to ready even if this demand appear, to change it for personal benefit and thought that this is enough…

”Hey , I am Roma, it is fine for me, that’s enough, must be that this is big step for Roma community in general”.

Some parallels that you stated are obvious facts, but I think as we see in our everyday life , these facts per se and some form of pressure on democratic societies are obviously not enough to make strong resistant and to make European democracies to keep their promise till now, and not to mention big revolution as in Egypt or Libya .

Democracy, or is it capitalism or interesting mixture of these two…or something else, appear more perverse in weakening, comodifying and in some way pacifying efforts and demands, if any.

Just want to say that these contexts even if we can find some parallels are different, and if we won’t to address these social events and consider them in relation to position of Roma in European context we have to be open to address a lot of variables, I think. This is in some way simple methodological argument.

This things-very young Roma population, poverty, lack of education, lack of jobs, discrimination still is not enough even to have firmer consolidation among young Roma, as it apears, as you stated we have insufficiently organized young Roma. Not sure what we need to organize ourselves better if this is not common interest to fight these things.... (Or is the question who are we, and is there something like common interest and in which extent)

Though I would like to think that something like powerful rebellion against bad position of Roma in general is possible , I think effort to make this kind of parallels is visionary , but that also it would be interesting to find what might be elements of difference and to find out more about this gap between one potential picture of future you presented and making in practice historically important turnovers , and also why this picture of potential hardcore revolution still seams so far away…well , to me as young Roma anyhow…

Thanks once more for this topic, we need more thinking of revolutions for sure!

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