According to Alasdair McWilliam of the Overseas Development Institute, the protests do center around inequality. In his piece for the Guardian, McWilliam says the protests are fueled by an economic inequality not easily measured by the UN or World Bank.
Unemployment among 15- to 24-year-olds in the Middle East is the highest in the world, at more than 25%. However, about two-thirds of the region's population is now below 24 years of age. The ever-greater numbers of high school and university graduates are not being absorbed into the economy, while the private sector is not generating enough skilled positions. Employers, meanwhile, complain of poor education quality and low graduate skills.
Tertiary enrolment – school leavers going to higher education – in Egypt has risen from 14% to 28% since 1990, and in Tunisia from 8% to 34%. Egyptian high school graduates account for 42% of the workforce, but 80% of the unemployed. According to the global employment trends from the International Labour Organisation, Arab countries need to generate more than 50 million jobs in the next decade just to stabilise employment. These conditions have created a large body of disaffected youth, a boiling pot of frustration that is now spilling over at governments that have failed to provide employment opportunities.
The reasons for unrest aren't all economic. Increases in literacy and education, alongside urbanisation and the expansion of the media, have extended political consciousness and broadened demands for political participation. Despite national increases in living standards, the region's repressive, authoritarian regimes are often plagued by corruption and nepotism. Dani Rodrik, a development economist, points out that economic growth does not buy stability unless political institutions mature at the same time. This shows that widely used measures of development such as the MDGs and the HDI are, by themselves, insufficient to determine development priorities: much greater attention needs to be played to inequality, but not only inequality of income.
Middle Eastern countries have had, at least until recently, one of the most equal income distributions in the world. Egypt, for example, registered a Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) of 32 in 2005, far lower than the 47 achieved by the US in the same year. This suggests that access to gainful employment and acute inequalities in political power also need to be considered.