The double tragedy of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (950)

The irony of Ben Ali’s downfall in Tunisia, Mubarak’s in Egypt and Gaddafi’s possible imminent defeat in Libya is that in recent years they had been doing more than most governments in Muslim countries in bringing about universal education for their children and in upgrading and expanding their universities. And, in all three cases, with emphasis on science and technology.

The result was a surplus of well-educated young people who had not been able to find jobs. They were the instigators of the recent protests. All this bears out the observation of Nikita Khrushchev, the Premier of Soviet Russia from 1958 to 1964. At that time, we in the West were persuaded to see him as a clown. Once, as though to prove the point, he took off his shoes and banged them on the rostrum while he was addressing the United Nations Assembly. Nevertheless, he was no clown. Despite starting out as a barefooted herdsboy in one of the poorest villages in one of the poorest regions in Russia, he was clever enough to rise to the very top of the what was the most competitive governmental system on earth at that time.

In his Khrushchev Remembers he wrote thus: “It is one thing to control starving peasants; it is quite another to govern them once they have food in their bellies.” Exactly. And the same applies in the mental department. We in the West were lucky. Our schools and universities grew alongside the industrial revolution and the creation of a myriad of opportunities and specialities. For at least two centuries, young people of whatever their level of education could find jobs readily.

Not so today. In the advanced countries, the growth of educational credentialism (that is, job protection) on the one hand, and automation on the other, means that mismatches are growing. Also, this is fast becoming so at the other end of the political spectrum. Even in the fastest industrializing country of them all—China—millions of factory workers are now having to return to the rural interior, and millions of graduates, including scientists and engineers—even in the prosperous coastal provinces—are finding it difficult to find appropriate work.

The advanced countries of the West are quite able to make all the producer-goods and specialized high-tech products that the world wants—and develop new ones. Newly industrializing countries such as China, South Korea and one or two more are quite able to make the vast majority of the consumer-goods the West needs as well as satisfying the expanding needs of those countries which are becoming more prosperous by virtue of their exports of resources.

Most countries, however, are trapped in a developmentally arid middle ground. To the extent that some of them are able to produce attractive traditional consumer goods, offer wonderful scenery or archeology to tourists, or produce cocaine or heroin, they might earn enough to keep their heads above water. But some of the middle band are already joining the new list of what are termed “failing states”—those that registered themselves as nations with the United Nations Organization in the last few decades but subsequently fell into lawlessness.

However, there is another middle band of countries which are exceptionally prosperous because of the oil and gas they presently export. This includes most of the Islamic countries of the Middle East plus some across North Africa. They’ve all realized, however, that when the oil and gas is exhausted their country faces poverty again. So, in the last 30 years or so, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how much their Islamic clerics resist them, they are setting about improving their education systems.

The verdict so far is that the only Islamic countries which have developed school systems which are free of religious control and which resemble those of the West or China in literacy and numeracy attainments are those mentioned above in my opening sentence. Oh, and there was Iraq, too—until it was invaded. Since the departure of Saddam Hussein the country has now fallen back into medieval religionism again, the Sunnis killing scores of Shias every week in bomb attacks. Many thousands of Iraq’s best minds in the professions (particularly medicine), sciences and academe who migrated after the invasion in 2003 have not yet returned and are not likely to as long as Iraq doesn’t have an effective government.

But if ever Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were to regain the same impetus for secular control of education as they previously had under their dictators, it is still doubtful whether their hoped-for surge in scientific research and subsequent product development could ever take place. For, just as religious cultures take generations to decline, so scientific cultures take generations to develop in width and depth. It can’t be turned on like a tap. Even in the case of Japan, for example, in many ways one of the most advanced technological countries in the world, a full measure of scientific creativity—and the consequence of unique products—has hardly yet emerged. Despite 150 years of industrialization, only 15 Japanese scientists have won Nobel prizes. In contrast—but with a preceding 150 years of science under their belts—America has won 215, the UK 91 and Germany 88. These three still produce almost all the new ideas and new products in the world. Japan still has a long apprenticeship to go yet.

What is to say about Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? Even if they were to gain satisfactory Western-type election procedures as a result of their mass protests (doubtful if we consider Iraq’s attempts) then it’s still unlikely that they could ever build up much by way of unique exportable goods once the oil and gas have gone. Realistically, they have a double tragedy if they want to be like us.

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