Image: Three women gesture for victory
Khalil Hamra  /  AP
Three women gesture for victory as they attend a demonstration in Cairo, Egypt, on Sunday. Minutes before the start of a 4 p.m. curfew, at least two jets appeared and made multiple passes over downtown, including a central square where thousands of protesters were calling for the departure of President Hosni Mubarak.
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updated 1/30/2011 1:58:50 PM ET 2011-01-30T18:58:50

Just days before fleeing Tunisia, the embattled leader went on national television to promise 300,000 new jobs over two years.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak did much the same Saturday as riots gripped Cairo and other cities: offering more economic opportunities in a country where half the people live on less than $2 a day.

The pledges-under-siege have something else in common: an acknowledgment that the unprecedented anger on Arab streets is at its core a long-brewing rage against decades of economic imbalances that have rewarded the political elite and left many others on the margins.

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With startling speed — less than two months since the first protests in Tunisia — underscored the wobbly condition of the systems used by some Arab regimes to hold power since the 1980s or earlier. The once formidable mix of economic cronyism and hard-line policing — which authorities sometime claim was needed to fight Islamic hard-liners or possible Israeli spies — now appears under serious strain from societies pushing back against the old matrix.

Mubarak and other Arab leaders have only to look to Cairo's streets: a population of 18 million with about half under 30 years old and no longer content to have a modest civil servant job as their top aspiration.

One protester in Cairo waved a hand-drawn copy of his university diploma amid clouds of tear gas and shouted what may best sum up the complexities of the domino-style unrest in a single word: Jobs.

"They are taking us lightly and they don't feel our frustration," said another protester, homemaker Sadat Abdel Salam. "This is an uprising of the people and we will not shut up again."

The narrative of economic injustice has surrounded the protests from the beginning.

"The regimes and the leaders are the ones under fire, but it's really about despair over the future," said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. "The faces of this include the young man with a university degree who cannot find work or the mother who has trouble feeding her family."

Tunisia's mutiny that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was touched off by a struggling 26-year-old university graduate who lit himself on fire after police confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart in December. Apparent copycat self-immolations quickly spread to Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere.

In Yemen, the poorest nation on the Arabian peninsula, sporadic riots have forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh into quick economic concessions, including slashing income taxes in half and ordering price controls on food and basic goods.

On Friday in Jordan, thousands of marchers clogged streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai and call for measures to control rising prices and unemployment. Many chanted: "Rifai go away, prices are on fire and so are the Jordanians."

King Abdullah II also has tried to dampen the fury by promising reforms, and the prime minister announced a $550 million package of new subsidies for fuel and staple products like rice, sugar, livestock and liquefied gas used for heating and cooking.

What feeds the flames is common across much of the Arab world: young populations, a growing middle class seeking more opportunities and access to websites and international cable channels, such as Al-Jazeera, which have eroded the state's hold on the media.

There are no clear signs on whether more protests could erupt.

Syria's authoritarian regime remains in firm control and has taken gradual steps to open up the economy. Rulers in the wealthy Gulf states have the luxuries of relatively small populations that often receive generous state benefits and other largesse. Kuwait's emir, for example, pledged this month 1,000 dinars ($3,559) and free food coupons for each citizen to mark several anniversaries, including the 1991 U.S.-led invasion that drove out Saddam Hussein's army.

But there have been stirrings of discontent in North Africa. Earlier this month, security forces in Algeria clashed with opposition activists staging a rally apparently inspired by neighboring Tunisia. In Mauritania, a businessman died after setting himself ablaze in a protest against the government.

A state-backed newspaper in Abu Dhabi, The National, ran interviews from four men from across the Middle East describing their trouble finding work. One 33-year-old Syrian, who has an English literature degree from Damascus University, complained he cannot find a teaching job or afford to get married.

"I feel as though I am in the Samuel Beckett play 'Waiting for Godot,' which I studied during my degree," Khaled Kapoun was quoted as saying. "I keep hoping that tomorrow a job will come along."

Even high Arab officials have expressed unusual candor following Tunisia's upheaval.

Earlier this month, the head of the Arab League warned that the "Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession."

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"The Tunisian revolution is not far from us," Amr Moussa said in his opening address to the 20 Arab leaders and other representatives of Arab League members gathered in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. "The Arab citizen entered an unprecedented state of anger and frustration."

Moussa, who is Egyptian, called for an Arab "renaissance" aimed at creating jobs and addressing shortcomings in society.

But at the Global Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, some experts said an education overhaul is needed in the region to shift from emphasis on state jobs to more dynamic private sector demands.

"Many people have degrees but they do not have the skill set," Masood Ahmed, director of the Middle East and Asia department of the International Monetary Fund, said earlier this week.

"The scarce resource is talent," agreed Omar Alghanim, a prominent Gulf businessman. The employment pool available in the region "is not at all what's needed in the global economy."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Farewell Friday

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  1. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Feb. 11. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Egyptians set off fireworks as they celebrate in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after President Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military. (Khalil Hamra / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the resignation of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in the Grand Foyer at the White House in Washington D.C. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Egyptians celebrate in Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military on Friday. Egypt exploded with joy, tears, and relief after pro-democracy protesters brought down President Hosni Mubarak with a momentous march on his palaces and state TV. Mubarak, who until the end seemed unable to grasp the depth of resentment over his three decades of authoritarian rule, finally resigned Friday. (Khalil Hamra / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protesters walk over a barricade after it was taken down to allow free entry to hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 11, 2011. A furious wave of protest finally swept Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak from power, sending a warning to autocrats across the Arab world and beyond. (Yannis Behrakis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A spokesman for Egypt's higher military council reads a statement titled “Communiqué No. 3” in this video still on Friday. Egypt's higher military council said it would announce measures for a transitional phase after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. (Reuters Tv / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Egyptian celebrates in Cairo after the announcement of President Mubarak's resignation. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. A furious wave of protest finally swept Mubarak from power after 30 years of one-man rule, sparking jubilation in the streets. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An Egyptian reacts in the street after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday, Feb. 11. (Amr Nabil / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Thousands of Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation on Friday. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Egyptian soldiers celebrate with anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square on Friday. Cairo's streets exploded in joy when Mubarak stepped down after three-decades of autocratic rule and handed power to a junta of senior military commanders. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Egyptians celebrate the news of Mubarak's resignation in Tahrir Square on Friday. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Egyptian woman cries as she celebrates the news of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who handed control of the country to the military, Friday night, in Tahrir Square, Cairo. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate minutes after the announcement on television of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday. Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had resigned. (Khaled Elfiqi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Opposition protesters celebrate Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, in Tahrir Square on Friday. President Mubarak bowed to pressure from the street and resigned, handing power to the army. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. On Egyptian state television, Al-Masriya, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman delivers an address announcing that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, in Cairo on Friday. (TV via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo
    Dylan Martinez / Reuters
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Video: Engel: Army trying to make ‘show of force’

  1. Transcript of: Engel: Army trying to make ‘show of force’

    SEC'Y CLINTON: Thank you.

    MR. GREGORY: Now let's go live to Cairo where we are joined by NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel who's been reporting on this story throughout. So, Richard , it is now almost Sunday evening. Give our viewers a sense of what's going on right now.

    MR. RICHARD ENGEL: The army is trying to make a show of force . More troops have been called in, and I'm sure any second now you're going to hear two Egyptian fighter jets that have been circling low over the city. The army is trying to tell the people the government still exists, the army is still in power, even though we don't see police on the streets and there has been a great deal of looting.

    MR. GREGORY: Looting overnight, and we saw some of those pictures. Why was that so important? Who was involved in that, and, and what did they do to crack down?

    MR. ENGEL: And here come those jets.... The looting is what is -- I'm not sure if I heard all your question because of the, the jets. The looting is what Egyptians are mostly focused on right now. Many people have set up private vigilante groups in front of their homes. People are gathering together, families are living in the same apartment when they can. People are afraid. This is no longer just a political movement with protesters on the streets, but there is a basic collapse of law and order.

    MR. GREGORY: Given that collapse, but given the relative restraint of the military, what does that say to you about Mubarak 's future?

    MR. ENGEL: The army has been called in, but the, the soldiers have not been firing on demonstrators. There have been tanks in the streets, they have been welcomed by the protesters. That shows that the army clearly has not been given an order to attack the demonstrators. It's unclear if the army would carry that out because we've seen a lot of soldiers who themselves have been standing up, cheering with the demonstrators. There seems to be a solidarity between the soldiers on the ground and the demonstrators themselves. We have also been told that there are discussions and disagreements between the senior leadership of the Egyptian army and President Mubarak himself. There's been talk of a coup. Clearly, we cannot get any confirmation or comment from the army if it is planning a coup or not.

    MR. GREGORY: Richard , give me a sense of what it's like on the street, talking to Egyptians who are protesting. What does it feel like for them in the middle of this moment?

    MR. ENGEL: Every Egyptian you'll -- that I've spoken to says the government is allowing a degree of chaos to happen in order to punish the people. The government doesn't like these demonstrations. President Mubarak feels personally threatened by them. And most Egyptians believe the police were pulled back. Thousands of inmates were allowed to escape from prison. Some say they broke out, maybe 10,000 prisoners -- rapists, murdered, Islamic militants -- have escaped onto the streets. And Egyptians say this is all allowed to happen in order to show the Egyptian people an alternative to a strict state. Now, the Egyptian government says that is not the case, that it is trying to regain order, but the Egyptian people think that the, the -- President Mubarak wants to show them, "Well, if you protest, the alternative is chaos."

    MR. GREGORY: Richard Engel , thank you for all of your reporting. And we'll stay tuned. Thank you very much . Now I want to turn to the Republican Leader of the Senate , Mitch McConnell from Kentucky . Senator, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS .

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