SEVERAL months ago a small ``help wanted'' ad was placed in a Casablanca newspaper by the manager of a new downtown luxury hotel. Thirty-eight positions were available. Five thousand people applied. Behind this small incident is a story of huge implications. With too many people, too few jobs, and few resources with which to create economic growth, the nations of North Africa (the ``Maghreb'') are headed for disaster.
They are failing to satisfy their 70 million citizens, many of whom are young, unemployed, and disillusioned. Maghreb leaders have already experienced the shock of anti-government protests, including last October's rioting in Algeria that left up to 500 dead.
Across the Maghreb - the region of North Africa that includes Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, and Libya - unemployment rates of more than 20 percent are common. The combined population is expected nearly to double to 120 million within 30 years - 220 million including Egypt, according to the Population Reference Bureau Inc. in Washington. Many experts fear the region may be living on borrowed time.
``The population/job problem is a time bomb that's ticking away,'' warns one Moroccan economist.
``It's at the root of most potential mayhem,'' adds a diplomatic source in Tunisia bluntly.
The failure of North African economies to keep pace with expanding populations has opened possibilities for Muslim fundamentalists, to whom many young Maghrebians have already turned in despair. Fundamentalists have called for the use of violence to establish Islamic governments.
In Europe, meanwhile, where proximity and historical ties have invested the Maghreb with the kind of significance Central America holds for the United States, the prospect of political destabilization is alarming.
Though the risk is not perceived as imminent, European sources point to the worst-case threats of terrorism and illegal immigration that could result. With over 2 million North African workers now in Western Europe, a potential fifth column already exists.
``Do you think if these countries exploded someday it would not affect us?'' a European ambassador in North Africa asks rhetorically.
So far Maghrebian governments have kept their heads above water because Europe has provided an outlet for surplus labor. But a European Community commissioner has warned that after 1992, when the EC becomes fully integrated, that safety-valve could be plugged. The prospect sends tremors through North African capitals.
``We simply don't have the possibility of solving our problems internally,'' a Tunisian economist says. ``We have no other solution than exporting our labor force.''
Maghrebian governments have used price controls and food subsidies to assuage discontent, but at the expense of the growth needed to create jobs. The failure has turned nearly all the governments to fundamental economic reform.
The economic problem could also be exacerbated by external shocks, including a rise in interest rates or energy prices. Either could cripple growth crucial to absorbing new workers that flood the job market each year.
Across the Maghreb, efforts to curb birth rates haven't kept up with runaway population growth.
Tunisia's former strong man Habib Bourguiba saw early on that population growth would retard economic growth. The result: Tunisia's family planning program, dating to the early 1960s, is one of the most effective in Africa.
Even so, there are 31 births per 1,000 people annually compared to 13 in Europe. Tunisia's population has jumped from 7.5 million to 10 million in just 10 years, leaving up to 40 percent of men under 35, many of whom while away the long days in coffee houses, with little hope of finding jobs. With a prospective cutback of up to 50 percent in US aid for family planning over the next decade, picking up the tab will be difficult.
With US support, Morocco has created a small army of itinerant health workers who go door to door, dispensing advice on child care and family planning. That's one reason why users of contraceptives have risen to a respectable 36 percent of women of child-bearing years. (The figure is 6 percent for West Africa and 73 percent in Europe.)
Population specialists have also been heartened by a recent poll showing that a majority of Moroccan women want to do more to space children and limit family size. But with 250,000 new job seekers flooding the market each year, the job deficit is growing.
In Algeria, where the political consequences of overpopulation were demonstrated in last October's riots, the government has been slower to respond.
Birth rates recently have dropped, but experts attribute the progress less to the government's modest ad campaign extolling the virtues of spacing children than to the process of self-limitation. Unable to find jobs and housing, many Algerians marry later, shortening the reproductive years.
And the campaign, halting to begin with, has been resisted in Algeria, as elsewhere in the Arab world, by hard-line fundamentalists who oppose family planning for religious and cultural reasons.
As with its neighbors, Algeria's main problem is the number of people now entering reproductive years. Two-thirds of Algerians are under 25. At today's growth rates, they could double the population to 50 million in 25 years.
``If the [growth] rates among that group don't drop, I see no hope for this country,'' a Western diplomat in Algiers says.