Image: Egyptian protester Jihan Ibrahim
Rachel Beth Anderson
Egyptian activist Jihan Ibrahim, 24, during the protests in Cairo that led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
Image: Miranda Leitsinger
By Reporter
NBC News

The wave of protests breaking across the Mideast and North Africa has a common leading edge — in each case, the unrest was triggered by young people lacking jobs or a viable future.

The youthful revolts and protests are in many ways predictable, experts say, combining a population boom that has produced a high percentage of teenagers and young adults with social conditions that are as volatile as the oil that fuels the region’s economy.

“Young people without jobs, young people who are waiting for a chance, young people without hope … they’re waiting, waiting, waiting,” said Tarik Yousef, dean of the Dubai School of Government. “At some point, you reach a threshold of patience.”

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Jihan Ibrahim, a 24-year-old Egyptian activist who was shot in the back with a rubber bullet during one of the protests and fled through a rain of tear gas and water cannons, said the pain and terror were “the price of freedom under this kind of a regime.”

“I want to be able to elect who I want to represent me. I want my government to be transparent,” said Ibrahim, who lived in California for several years when she was younger. “I want free education and decent health care, and decent wage and job opportunities — just like any reasonable human being would ask for.”

Young adults like Ibrahim are part of a regional “youth bulge,” a situation that occurs when infant mortality declines during a period of improved medical technology and families continue to have many children.

Video: Pro-Gadhafi forces launch airstrikes on rebels (on this page)

Overall, 15- to 24-year-olds make up about 20 percent of the population across the Mideast and North Africa, and 30 percent when that range is extended to 15- to 29-years old, according to a report by the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

In the U.S., 15- to 24-year-olds and 15- to 29-year-olds make up 14.1 percent and 21.3 percent of the population, respectively.

'Like the baby boom generation’
“It’s a bit like the baby boom generation in this country,” said Ragui Assaad, an Egyptian-American and professor of planning and public affairs at the University of Minnesota. “But it’s not because there are more babies — it’s because more babies are surviving.

“What makes the youth bulge particularly problematic is its combination with economic conditions that have made it hard to employ these young people in productive ways.”

Unemployment among the young is stubbornly high in many countries in the region. In 2009, Algeria and Iraq had unemployment rates of 45 percent for 15- to 24-year-olds, according the Brookings report . In Libya, where the government of Moammar Gadhafi is clinging to power amid a massive revolt, the rate was 27 percent in 2005, the most recent data available. And in Egypt, where youth-led protests forced regime change, the rate was 25 percent.

Compare that with an unemployment rate for young Americans of 19.1 percent in July 2010 and 20 percent across the 27 nations of the European Union, as of August 2010.

“The Middle East and North Africa have the highest youth unemployment rate amongst all regions,” Credit Suisse said in a Feb. 25 report on the region’s demographics. “The effect of unemployment in some of these countries is felt even more strongly due to high inflation.”

The surge in the youth population creates “a primary condition for potential destabilization” if this situation “does not translate into youth achievement,” said Yousef, the Dubai educator.

“It sets up a demand for social-economic transformation, modernization that has to be focused on addressing the needs of this particular segment of the population,” he said. “Most of the governments in the regions have precisely failed to do that. Their approach and response to it has been one of, ‘Let’s repress it.’”

Slideshow: Political unrest in Yemen (on this page)

As a result, sometimes an individual can ignite a revolution.

The suicide of a 26-year-old unemployed university graduate in Tunisia, who set himself on fire on Dec. 17 after authorities said he did not have a permit to sell fruits and vegetables, was one of the triggers of the youth-led protests in that country and was widely seen as helping spark the protests sweeping the region.

Educated and underemployed
Ibrahim, the Egyptian activist, said educated and underemployed young people organized the early demonstrations. She recalled one protest outside of the Ministry of Petroleum in Cairo that was led by a group of unemployed graduate engineering students.

“We have a ministry that’s supposed to employ them and they don’t,” she said, noting the students were instead “selling sandwiches off of carts.”

“You have people that have time on their hands, they’re oppressed politically and treated horribly by the police, and then unemployed or underemployed, and they’re educated,” she said. “So that definitely has to build up a lot of anger.”

In Iran, where the government has cracked down hard on recent protests and employment is 20 percent among 15- to 24-year-olds, the lack of economic opportunity also has motivated many youth to organize anti-regime protests.

Interactive: Young and restless: Demographics fuel Mideast protests (on this page)

Among them is an anti-government activist who identified himself as a 26-year-old man after being contacted by msnbc.com. He said he has only been able to find a part-time job despite looking for work for two-and-a-half years.

“Injustice. Oppression. Lack of freedom. Our resources used for terrorism and not for jobs, or making Iran better. No future,” he wrote to msnbc.com, declining to identify himself out of fear for his safety.

Though he was beaten by the hardline Basiji militiamen, he said he wouldn’t stop.

“My blood is no less value then Neda … and all of our martyrs,” he wrote, referring to a young woman slain in the initial 2009 opposition protests in Iran. “… We need to free Iran.”

Assaad, the University of Minnesota professor, noted that youth were not willing to accept the “authoritarian bargain” that their parents had agreed to, giving up their freedoms in return for economic stability.

'We are not getting anything in return'
“These young people are saying, ‘We are not getting anything in return, why should we accept that bargain,’” he said. “And so they are demanding a say in how their countries are run.”

Some parallels in history of this youth bulge — and ensuing protests — can be found in the anti-government demonstrations in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, the 1986 “People Power” movement in the Philippines that brought down Ferdinand Marcos and the post-World War II protests in Europe and the U.S., Assaad said.

“It’s not a coincidence that the late 1960s in the U.S. where you saw the greatest protests on the part of young people — whether it’s a civil rights movement, or the student movement in the late ‘60s, the anti-war movement — those were led by young people,” Assaad said. “That’s the peak of where the baby boomers were becoming young adults and that same phenomenon was occurring also in Europe as the post-war generation was coming of age.”

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“Their demands were less economic and more cultural in nature,” he said. “I see the 1968 revolts as more, ‘We want a say in the society and we want to be able to assert ourselves culturally in ways that are different from the previous generation.’”

The Tiananmen protesters also were not primarily making economic demands. “It was a question of, ‘Now that we have this higher level of economic achievement, we would like to have also a say in running our country,’” Assaad said.

But the presence of a youth bulge does not necessarily mean there will be violence or unrest, Assaad said.

“Youth bulges basically create dynamics for things to happen that involve youth and these things could be quite different depending on the conditions in each context,” he said. “It could be cultural demands and counterculture, as well as demands for human rights and marginalized groups, like what happened in the U.S. … In the case of the Middle East, it’s a combination of economic and political.”

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In East Asia — Korea, Taiwan, China — and parts of Southeast Asia, for example, the “youth bulge actually coincided with tremendous growth in the economy and good employment opportunities, and as a result, resulted in even more rapid growth” in the ’80s and early ’90s, Assaad said.

Though the Mideast protests have been led by youth, they have grown to include others disgruntled with their governments.

“The government has put the people in a situation where they live in constant fear and I think that’s one of the main reasons why so many people have come out, because they have just had enough,” said Maryam Alkhawaja, a 23-year-old activist in Bahrain who fled her home last year out of fear of imprisonment but returned to document and participate in the protests there.

The peak of the youth bulge was reached somewhere between 2005 and 2010 in much of the Mideast and is now declining in many countries there. But the youth have made a lasting impact, along the same scale of what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989, Assaad said.

“The genie is out of the bottle. You cannot bring those people back to being apolitical and apathetic. They’re going to be there, they’re going to be active, they know now how to do it,” he said. “This region had been the region where democracy had been the slowest to come in the world. … I think that’s going to change now.”

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Data: Young and restless: Demographics fuel Mideast protests

Video: Pro-Gadhafi forces launch airstrikes on rebels

  1. Closed captioning of: Pro-Gadhafi forces launch airstrikes on rebels

    >> in forces loyal to moammar gadhafi . jim maceda is in tripoli . good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning, matt. there are fresh reports today of intense fighting in the east with an oil installation changing hands by the hour. it could be the sign of a long protracted conflict. the uprising in tripoli has gone to ground. there have been no protests here for days, not since security forces dispersed a crowd of several hundred with live fire. increasingly, security experts say, it will be on the battlefield where any break in the standoff will come. in the rebel camps, spirits remain high in zawiya after opposition forces who had taken the town over the weekend managed to hold it despite a pro gadhafi counter attack .

    >> we feel we are in a good situation. we are ready to attack gadhafi in tripoli .

    >> reporter: but tripoli is ringed by tanks and artillery and a dozen checkpoints. there were signs today gadhafi was mounting an offensive with reports of gains in the rebel-held east. at least one oil installation was recaptured and libyan bombs were attacking an air base just days ago. gadhafi 's son said brushed off comments that his father was collusional made by susan rice , ambassador to the u.n.

    >> we have many city leaders, statesmen, every day. we have no time for them.

    >> reporter: as the fighting spreads, so does the anxiety. more than 100,000 have fled the country and thousands more can't get out, like these migrant workers , mostly africans who are living outside tripoli airport . many have waited for days but flights never come. this laborer says conditions are desperate. there is toole little food or even water and his family is getting sick.

    >> we need your aid.

    >> reporter: they fear another african war . with either the libyan army nor the rebels capable of striking a knockout blow this humanitarian crisis we are seeing could get much worse. meredith?

Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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