Reality Bites: Unemployed Iraqi Youth and the ‘Graduate Revolution’

Mustafa Habeeb


Iraqi graduates and students have been protesting outside government offices for weeks now, demanding jobs. Unfortunately economic reality stands in their way of their demands.                   

Every day Mazin Abdel-Jaber and his fellow students have been standing in front of the Iraqi Ministry of Health headquarters in Baghdad, holding banners. All of them are science graduates and they are demanding that the government give them a job.

“I graduated in 2011 and so far, I haven’t been able to get a good job,” Abdel-Jaber says. “Instead, over the past eight years, I’ve been doing work totally unconnected to my degree. I’m not happy,” he added.

Abdel-Jaber and his fellow graduates demonstrate outside this ministry because they believe it comes closest  to the field in which they might be able to establish a career. The same demonstrations are being held all over the city, by other graduates outside other ministries, ones that are more relevant to their fields of study. For example, last week engineering graduates held a protest outside the headquarters of an oil company.

The United Nations says that unemployment in Iraq sits at around 11 percent but among younger Iraqis – those aged 15 to 24 –  it is thought to be much higher, around 18 percent. Iraq is one of the youngest countries in the world – and every year there are more graduates adding to those percentages, about 40,000 annually.

The graduates and students have taken to calling their protests, the “graduates’ revolution” and have also been very active on social media. The protestors involved often post on the Twitter timelines of the officials they are pursuing, trying to embarrass them into action. They have also run a number of well-organised and effective online campaigns, involving hash tags that attract other Iraqis’ attention. For example, they started to use words that hark back to the semi-official Shiite Muslim militias, formerly volunteers but now a powerful part of Iraq’s security forces.

Back in real life, as the office staff go past the protesting students, they seem unsure as to how to deal with their young country people. The Iraqi government seems to share that confusion. Almost 60 percent of all Iraqi jobs are provided by the government and this year it tried to provide more employment opportunities, to try and relieve some of the pressure of youth employment. They created a further 60,000 new positions – but this isn’t enough to cater for past and present graduates.

Additionally many of the open positions are never filled by the intended beneficiaries. Thanks to cronyism, nepotism and corruption, other Iraqis take the jobs up – for example, some of the jobs are “sold” for thousands of dollars.

Students have spoken up about this. Rumour has it that one influential senior official was “selling” jobs for US$25,000. Another student complained that he had been swindled – he paid US$3,000 for a job but never got it.

Nonetheless the graduates hold out hope that they may find gainful employment befitting their qualifications, and many believe that this ongoing pressure by protest will eventually help them.

Unfortunately for them, economic reality would seem to suggest otherwise. It is nigh on impossible for the Iraqi government to provide as many jobs as are required. The cost of reconstruction and several expensive years fighting the extremist group known as the Islamic State is high: The government simply cannot afford to employ all of Iraq’s graduates.

Iraq doesn’t have much of a private sector – much of its economy is dependent on oil revenues and how the government disburses them.

The government recently took steps toward strengthening the private sector in Iraq, by instituting more protectionist policies, particularly around agriculture.

“The private sector is key to solving the problem of unemployment,” says local economist Bassem Jamil Anton. “The government cannot provide jobs for everyone. But the problem is that the private sector has a lot of major challenges  to overcome. Some of these are related to Iraqi bureaucracy and corruption, because a lot of the private sector companies are actually closely affiliated with political parties,” he points out.


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