Dina Bishara, The University of Alabama

*This memo is part of POMEPS Studies 31, Social Policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Unemployment among university graduates is widespread in a number of Arab countries and was heralded as one of the major factors fueling mobilization during the Arab uprisings. However, this issue has been at the forefront of social policy issues in the region since neoliberalization efforts of the 1980s drastically decreased the guaranteed employment opportunities previously available to graduates. In this memo, I examine why unemployed graduates’ associations emerged in Morocco and Tunisia but not in Egypt. These cases are ideal for comparative purposes as they allow us to rule out a number of rival explanations. All three countries experienced similar grievances around educated unemployment. Meanwhile, variations in political openness between the two states where groups did form means that opportunity alone was not a sole explaining factor either. I also find that legacies of French colonialism fail to account for these different trajectories.

Instead, I find that a strong Leftist tradition of student unionism when grievances became salient helps explain the formation and success of organizing around graduate unemployment. In Morocco and Tunisia, networks formed during student activism provided the basis for organized action following graduation, using ideology and a rights-based discourse. However in Egypt, where Leftist activism had been suppressed, Islamist activism dominated student unions when these grievances were emerging. Islamist organizers, focused on individual morality and improvement rather than class and collective action. In Morocco and Tunisia, the emergence of unemployed graduates’ associations has brought the issue to the forefront of policy debates and forced governments to devote more attention to its resolution. Better understanding of the conditions under which these organizations were able to form can pave the way for more detailed studies about their long-term effects on policy and mobilization.

The limits of conventional explanations

Organization of the unemployed constitutes an important puzzle for scholars of collective action and social movements. Indeed, many scholars have long considered the mobilization of the unemployed “improbable” (Chabanet and Faniel 2012). Some attribute this to the lack of a cohesive identity or the lack of resources among the unemployed. Others point to psychological factors, such as political apathy, or societal factors, like the stigmatization of the unemployed, which might delegitimize their mobilization (Chabanet and Faniel 2012).

Despite these challenges, mobilization around unemployment has taken place in a variety of contexts, including Europe, North America, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Existing explanations for the mobilization of the unemployed fall under two broad categories, namely grievances and opportunities. Arguments based on grievances point to increased unemployment rates and rising poverty as triggers of mobilization. Explanations focusing on changes in opportunity structures argue that unemployed mobilization is more likely in permissive political environments (Epstein 2003). Others have advocated the need to go beyond national-level political opportunity structures by examining how the adoption of different policies might serve as a catalyst for organization (Gray 2007). Another version of opportunity-based arguments emphasizes the availability of allies, such as unions or Leftist parties, as an important aspect of the political opportunity structure (Della Porta 2008, 291).

However, these explanations do not sufficiently account for why unemployed graduates’ associations formed in Morocco and Tunisia but not in Egypt.


As “resource poor, labor abundant countries” (Cammett and Diwan 2015), Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt have all experienced similar demographic challenges and corresponding strains on their labor markets. Having invested significant resources in improving educational attainment, primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, each was faced with the need to accommodate a growing, and more educated, labor force, especially since all had guaranteed employment policies for university graduates. Starting in the 1980s, all three countries witnessed rising unemployment rates, especially among the more educated segments of society.

In Morocco, graduate unemployment, including for those with a doctoral degree, quadrupled from 6.5 percent in 1984 to 26.2 percent in 1993, while unemployment among high school graduates more than doubled from 14.6 per cent over the same period (Sater 2010, 99). In Egypt, “according to the 1986 census, the unemployment rate for intermediate degree holders was 28.8 percent and for university graduates was 25.5 percent” (Wickham 2002, 43). Despite the fact that degree holders (intermediate level and above) constituted 32 percent of the Egyptian labor force in 1985, they accounted for 74 percent of the unemployed (Wickham 2002, 43). In 2015, the unemployment rate for youth with advanced education was 56.7 percent, compared to 14.9 percent for youth with basic education. A 2012 labor survey conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) shows that “university level graduates have the highest rate of unemployment in the youth bracket at 34 percent, compared to 2.4 percent among youth with less than primary level education (Abdel Ghafar 2016). In Tunisia, unemployment rates among university graduates rose steadily from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s, from 3.8 percent in 1994 to 29.2 percent in 2011 (Weipert-Fenner and Wolf 2016).

In Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco alike, the state’s adoption of neoliberal economic reforms and inability to meet earlier promises of guaranteed employment for college graduates increased grievances (Wickham 2002, 46; Sater 2010, 99). These grievances were central to the emergence of unemployed graduates’ associations in Tunisia and Morocco (Weipert-Fenner and Wolff 2016). However, while similar grievances existed in Egypt, no unemployed graduates’ associations were established, illustrating how grievances alone cannot explain mobilization.

Opportunities and resources

Opportunity-based arguments are also insufficient in explaining variation in the emergence of unemployed graduates’ associations in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. From a political standpoint, all three countries were ruled by authoritarian regimes, making mobilization costly and risky. In fact, Tunisia’s unemployed graduates’ union (Union des diplômés chômeurs, UDC) was established under politically repressive conditions under Ben Ali’s rule. The organization did not gain legal recognition until after Ben Ali’s ouster, and its members were subject to routine repression. In contrast, Egypt experienced some political opening in the early 2000s, characterized by increased protests and the emergence of movements such as Kefyaa (Enough). Despite this, mobilization around issues of unemployment was largely absent. Again, we see that variation in the emergence of unemployed graduates’ associations cannot be explained through political opening.

Another opportunity-based argument focuses on the presence of allies, such as unions. The experience of unemployed associations in Tunisia and Morocco supports the claim that existing organizations, such as unions or parties, can support resource-poor movements like the movement of unemployed university graduates. However, while the presence of these allies might facilitate the activities of unemployed graduates’ associations once formed, it is not clear that their presence is sufficient for explaining their emergence.

Finally, if we focus on the presence of pre-existing networks among activists, all three countries had active student unions. This would have provided readily available networks for the organization of unemployed graduates.

French colonial legacy?

Another potential explanation for the variation in the emergence of unemployed graduates’ associations has to do with the fact that Tunisia and Morocco share a history of French colonialism, while Egypt does not. Given that mobilization around unemployment is common in French history and that Leftist ideology is prevalent in French unionism, it is possible that French colonial legacy influenced the establishment of unemployed graduates’ associations in Tunisia and Morocco. However, this legacy cannot fully account for variation across North Africa. First, it is puzzling that Algeria, a French colony for over 100 years, only witnessed the emergence of an association for the unemployed in the context of the Arab uprisings of 2010 to 2011.

Second, while French colonialism played an important role in shaping the formation of trade unions in Tunisia and Morocco, the models of unionism that emerged in both countries differ greatly. Whereas most Tunisian workers are represented through a single national confederation, Morocco has a pluralistic trade union scene. In addition, trade unions are closely allied to political parties in Morocco, leading to high levels of competition and fragmentation.

Unemployed graduates’ associations in Morocco and Tunisia

Unemployed movements in Tunisia and Morocco centered primarily on the activism of university graduates. In Morocco, unemployed MA and PhD holders have been mobilizing since the mid-1990s. The National Association of Unemployed Graduates of Morocco (ANDCM), established in 1991, was the first organization of its kind in North Africa. In Tunisia, the UDC was formed in 2006 but only gained legal recognition in 2011, after Ben Ali’s ouster. The organization grew out of local initiatives, starting with the Committee to Defend Unemployed in Gafsa and eventually played an active role in the 2008 mining basin revolts in Gafsa (Weipert-Fenner and Wolff 2016). When the UDC was formed in 2006, it only had a few hundred members (Weipert-Fenner and Wolff 2016). In the period immediately following Ben Ali’s ouster, the UDC’s membership grew exponentially to 50,000 members (Interview with UDC activist, May 2017). This number has declined significantly since then.[1]

From a social policy perspective, the emergence of these organizations has brought the issue of educated unemployment to the foreground of public debate and policy discussions. In Morocco, as early as 1997, government officials negotiated with activists over recruitment agreements. In addition, “the Ministry of Employment and Vocational Training began to develop specialized training and job-creation programs, which are implemented to this day by the national employment agency (anapec)” (Thyne 2018, 103-104).

The Moroccan government’s response to the February 20 Movement reflected its interest in discouraging the mobilization of unemployed university graduates and preventing them from joining the broader protest movement. The government thus created 3,400 new public administration positions (Thyne 2018, 107).

In Tunisia, the UDC’s mobilization has similarly brought increased government attention to the issue of unemployment. However, its organizational weakness has hindered its capacity to exert pressure on the Tunisian government and demand changes to its recruitment policies.

In both Tunisia and Morocco, unemployed graduates’ associations have their origins in student union networks. In both countries, the mobilization of unemployed graduates grew out of a Leftist, Marxist tradition of student activism in the UNEM (Union Nationale des Edudiants du Maroc) and UGET (Union General des Edudiants de Tunisie), respectively. Despite the fact that student unions in both countries witnessed the rise of Islamic activism in the 1980s and 1990s, a strong Leftist tradition remained. In both countries, it was Leftist activists who pioneered the unemployed graduates’ movement. Members affiliated with the Islamist current eventually joined the ranks of the movement but did not play a leading role in the initial formation of unemployed graduates’ associations.

In Morocco, and Tunisia, the UNEM and UGET served as training grounds for activists in the unemployed graduates’ movement and greatly informed their protest tactics. Equally important, however, both the UNEM and UGET were dominated by Leftist currents at key junctures in the movement’s trajectory in both countries.

The UNEM had a militant history and was a stronghold of Leftist activism into the 1990s when the Islamist Adl wa al-Ihsan group gained some ground. As Badimon argues, the founding members of the ANDCM had been socialized in the UNEM in the 1960s and 1970s (Badimon, 82). Indeed, the pioneers of the both the Moroccan and Tunisian associations of unemployed graduates had a Leftist or a Marxist-Leninist background (Badimon) and were active in student unions.

Crucially, this Marxist-Leninist background provided the basis for developing a natural connection between student activism to the mobilization of the unemployed:

Marxist-Leninist university student unionism defined students who came from proletarian backgrounds as the ‘vanguard’ of the revolution, and their natural space of political intervention was the university. With this ideological frame, the mobilization of the unemployed represents to the graduates the same thing that unions formerly represented to the students (87)

Tunisia’s experience parallels that of Morocco. Not only did the UDC has its roots in a tradition of Lefitst-oriented student unionism within the UGET, its pioneering activists saw unemployed organization as a natural sequel to student activism:

Like the student union, the UDC was clearly leftwing: Joining the trade union federation was regarded as the logical continuation of activism within a political camp, with the UDC serving as a bridge from student to worker activism (Vatthauer and Weipert-Fenner 2017, 23).

This ideological framework also proved critical in framing the mobilization of unemployed university graduates as a class issue that could only be solved through state intervention. Crucially, both the UDC and the ANDCM developed a rights-based frame around the issue of unemployment and viewed the problem of graduate unemployment in class terms. In its 1991 founding congress, the ANDCM explicitly formulated the concept of “right to work” and expressed unemployment among university graduates as a “class phenomenon” and structural problem that requires state action (Badimon). This framing is critical because it enabled activists to portray the problem as one that could not be solved through individual initiatives. Instead, it required collective mobilization with a clear target—namely, the state.

A similar dynamic is at play in Tunisia, where UDC members “claim a right to work they never enjoyed” (Weipert-Fenner and Wolff 2016, 6). “In their understanding, this right is violated if they are forced to work in the informal sector, have only a temporary contract in the formal sector or a job that does not fit their level of academic education. The UDC, thus, rebels against the broken promise that higher education is a guarantee for social mobility and a life with dignity” (2016, 6).

Egypt: The Muslim Brotherhood’s solution to graduate unemployment

Unlike Tunisia and Morocco, where Leftists enjoyed a strong presence in student unions when grievances around graduate unemployment became salient, Egypt witnessed the rise of Islamic activism in student unions starting in the mid- to late- 1970s. Crucially, this coincided with the Mubarak regime’s efforts to “scale back the guaranteed employment scheme” in the early1980s (Wickham 2002, 46). Following the 1977 bread riots, many Leftist student activists were jailed. “Sadat covertly encouraged the formation of Islamic student groups in this period as a counterweight to the left” (Wickham 2002, 116). By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Islamists dominated student unions in Egypt. “The Islamists’ electoral takeover of the student movement – which occurred at the faculty, university, and national levels – was especially striking in such faculties as Cairo University’s faculty of engineering, which had long been regarded as a fortress of the Left” (Wickham 2002, 116).

Despite greater security constraints on student activism in the 1980s and 1990s, Islamists continued to dominate student politics during those decades, especially in elite faculties such as engineering, medicine and science. Although this was due, in part, to the decline of the Left, it can be attributed to the success of Islamist mobilization (Wickham 2002, 117-118).“While their leftist counterparts dispersed among various splinter groups or exited politics altogether, the Islamist student leaders of the 1970s sustained their activism in the 1980s and early 1990s in the parallel Islamic sector, in which they converted neighborhood mosques, Islamic community and service organizations, and even private homes into sites of outreach to educated youth” (Wickham 2002, 118).

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood responded to the problem of graduate unemployment by calling for the spiritual reform of the individual and society, and by offering an array of services to recent graduates. As Bruce Rutherford points out:

the MB appealed to many of these lower-middle class university graduates. Its emphasis on morality and honesty stood in sharp contrast to the growing corruption and cronyism within society. It also offered specific services to improve the lot of unemployed graduates, including job training, apartments, health care and emergency costs (2008, 84).

This spiritual frame was key to the success of Islamist mobilization in Egypt (Wickham 2004, Rutherford 2008). The Muslim Brotherhood’s message was particularly appealing to educated lower middle-class youth as it “portrayed Islam as the means to fundamentally transform the existing order” (Wickham 2004, 238). In addition to the material benefits of participation, Wickham stresses the psychological and emotional appeal of participation in Islamic networks (2004, 234).

Because Islamist activists dominated Egyptian student unions when educated unemployment emerged as a salient grievance, they failed to provide an ideological foundation for the mobilization as Leftists did in Tunisia or Morocco. Nor did Egyptian Islamists frame the issue of graduate unemployment in class terms. Instead, Egyptian Islamists engaged with the issue of graduate unemployment as a symptom of a morally corrupt political order and posited the vision of Islamic rule as an alternative to this order.


Variation in the emergence of unemployed graduates’ associations in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt cannot be easily explained through the conventional focus on grievances and opportunities. Instead, I highlight the importance of a strong Leftist-oriented tradition of student activism at the time that grievances about graduate unemployment became salient as an alternative to existing explanations. Whereas in Egypt, Islamists had dominated student activism at the height of grievances around graduate unemployment, both Morocco and Tunisia featured strong traditions of Leftist student activism. It is no coincidence that the pioneering activists of unemployed graduates’ associations in Tunisia and Morocco had a Leftist ideological background. This background was pivotal in framing activism by unemployed graduates as an extension of student activism as well as framing educated employment as a right. While Egypt featured pre-existing networks among unemployed graduates, these networks had been formed through Islamic activism. In contrast to Leftist activists in Morocco and Tunisia, Islamists in Egypt did not frame graduate employment a right nor did they seek to target the state in resolving the issue.

[1] Weipert-Fenner and Wolff (2016) estimate that the UDC currently has 2000-3000 active members.


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Why unemployed graduates’ associations formed in Morocco and Tunisia but not Egypt