Saturday, January 15, 2011

Youth in the Middle East: a New Force for Change?

The toppling of Tunisian President Zine al-Abadine Bin Ali goes far beyond the ousting of an aging, repressive and corrupt autocrat. Bin Ali is the first Arab president to be forced out of office by non-violent civil demonstrations. Perhaps most importantly, the impetus of the movement that led to his fall was the actions of Tunisian youth who kept up demonstrations against his regime for more than a month. Responding to the self-immolation last December of a 25 year old unemployed Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, who the police had prevented from selling vegetables in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisian youth took to the streets to protest a repressive and increasingly unpopular government. Despite the estimated killing of 50 demonstrators by the police, they refused to leave the streets. What was most significant was the role of youth in the first toppling of a sitting Arab leader. What are the implications of youth activism for political change elsewhere in the Middle East?

My own research with Iraqi youth over the past two years, which was recently featured on National Public Radio's All Things Considered (Wide Gulf Divides Youth from Older Generation), indicates a pattern throughout the Middle East, namely the deep disaffection of youth. While Iraqi youth may be less disaffected than youth in more repressive countries, because at least Iraq has democratic elections, they reject sectarianism and the manipulation of religion for political ends. While highly attracted to Western culture, Iraqi youth know little about their own country's history. While some are very active in civil society organizations, others are cynical about politics which they view as the realm of corrupt elites. Because Iraq's youth constitutes 65% of the population under the age of 25, we find the same "youth bulge" that exists in many countries of the Middle East, including Tunisia. Youth comprise an important demographic that represents the future of the Middle East and one that calls out for more study.

Yet the older generation, as we see in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, is very out of touch with young people in the region. These elites have done little to prepare these youth for the future or to build economies that would provide them with jobs. Freedom of speech is suppressed and the national media strictly censored. To legitimate their rule, Islam is manipulated for political ends. Secular leaders like Bin Ali, Egypt's president Husni Mubarak, Syria's Bashar al-Asad, and Algeria's Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika, argue that authoritarianism is necessary to prevent Islamists from coming to power. Islamist regimes, such as those in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, completely distort Islamic doctrine to suppress individual freedoms and prevent any form of dissent.

These conditions suggest a dangerous and explosive future for the region. Lack of jobs, and hence little hope in the future, widening disparities in income distribution, combined with increased awareness of the high life led by corrupt and nepotistic rulers, made all the more evident by social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, provide all the elements for a "perfect storm" of social unrest and uprisings against unpopular regimes. While some oil-rich regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, may be able to co-opt dissidents, this is not an option in many of the region's dictatorships that do not possess such resources.

The role of social media will continue to fuel the flames of discontent. As the blogosphere in the Middle East has expanded, young people have access to even more information about the sharp contrast between the lack of freedoms in their own country and the freedom enjoyed by youth in the West and elsewhere. Even a cursory examination of events in Tunisia during the past month indicates the power of the Internet in fomenting and organizing the discontent that led to the toppling of the Bin Ali regime.

Even in countries where elections matter, such as Turkey, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon, large numbers of youth see their respective political leaders as unimaginative, corrupt, and unresponsive to the wishes of the populace at large. In the remainder of the region's authoritarian countries, which range from the milder regimes in Jordan and Morocco, to the highly repressive in Iran and Saudi Arabia, most youth have either given up hope or are ready to take to the streets.

As educational opportunities began to expand in the Middle East during the 1950s and after, young people became ever more conscious of the problems facing their countries. For many, having a degree meant little if they did not have the influence (wasta) among the political elite that would allow them to obtain meaningful employment. Indeed, Tunisian youth interviewed during the recent demonstrations speak of not having the necessary funds to bribe officials to obtain employment.

For many educated youth, escape to Europe, North America, Australia or elsewhere provided a release for some of this frustration. But, as the global economy has deteriorated, and now seems to face an extended crisis, the educated are no longer able to "vote with their feet." If we add to the disaffected middle classes - the main social force behind the demonstrations in Tunisia (and in Iran during the protests following the rigged June 2009 presidential elections) - the growing urban poor, many of whom are under the age of 30, we see that a revolutionary situation is in the offing.

Of course, many of the urban poor often support populist and would-be authoritarians, such as Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. One of the trends to keep an eye on will be the extent to which disaffected youth from the middle and lower classes can make common cause to improve their economic status and political freedoms. Clearly, for the poor, improving their material fortunes takes precedence over more abstract values , such as freedom of speech and assembly.

Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" reflects the frustration that all societies in the Middle East feel as the result of political leaders who lack vision and refuse to enact democratic change. This is clear from the enthusiasm and shock waves that events in tiny Tunisia have sent throughout the Middle East. All across the region, citizens in various countries are asking themselves: could this be the beginning of a new democratic era? This is especially true of young people who are the main force behind the social media that is deluging the Internet with commentary about what is taking place in Tunisia.

Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, who ruled from 1957 to 1987, promoted education, a secular culture and women's rights. While he was as much of an autocrat as Bin Ali, the results of his policies are evident. Islamists have played almost no role in the past month's events in Tunisia.
Instead, we see a movement of the secular middle classes pushing for democracy and social justice. That Tunisia has a large middle class, albeit economically distressed, that believes in democratic freedoms and is no longer willing to live under autocratic rule should send a message to all political elites in the area.

Political protest in Tunisia contrasts sharply with recent events in Pakistan, where young lawyers - trained during the repressive regime of the late General Zia ul-Haq - who imposed a harsh and intolerant form of Islam during his rule from 1977 to 1988, showered rose petals on Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salman Taseer. the secular governor of Punjab Province. Taseer's "crime" was his persistent criticism of the so-called Blasphemy Laws imposed by General Zia which harshly punish those considered to have insulted Islam. Before his assassination, Taseer had been trying to overturn the sentence of a Christian woman who had been convicted of insulting Islam under these laws. While Bourguiba's regime produced a large secular middle class, Zia ul-Haq's rule spread intolerance and bigotry.

While radical Islamism is still strong among some sectors of the Pakistani population, Islamism in its authoritarian variant has run its course in the Middle East. The June 2009 demonstrations which led to Iran's Green Revolution, that protested the rigged reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are a good example of the disgust many Iranian youth feel for the so-called Islamic Republic, which they see as neither Islamic or representing republicanism in any meaningful definition of the word. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has experienced serious internal cleavages as young members have increasingly opted for democracy and have challenged the prerogatives of the movement's aged leadership. In Morocco, many Islamists have opted for non-violent action in their efforts to create a truly democratic polity.

Many youth int he Middle East realize that Islamist parties have no programme for creating jobs, improving educational opportunity, offering better health care or expanding individual freedoms. Indeed, in Iraq, many young people are increasingly rejecting Islamism in its intolerant variants as they see sectarian leaders manipulate a distorted version of Islam for their own personal political and economic ends.

The upheaval in Tunisia is far from over, the movement for democracy there is still in formation,and it is unclear who will lead the country out of its current crisis. Still, Tunisia may represent the first chapter in a process leading towards greater freedom in the Middle East. A successful transition to democracy in Tunisia could have a "domino effect" throughout the region. The recent demonstrations may also presage an ever more active role for the youth of the Middle East who have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the continuation of authoritarian rule and "politics as usual."

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