The Youth Revolution in the Middle East

Written on February 17, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Culture & Society, Democracy & Human Rights, Middle East

By Ibrahim Al-Marashi

Around a year ago I was reading Hugh Miles’ book on Al-Jazeera and there was a line that struck me.  In this book, the author describes how the Al-Jazeera journalist Walid al-Omary interviewed both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.  During Al-Omary’s interview with Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister spent the entire time talking about farming.  Afterwards Al-Omary related how when meeting Arafat, the Palestinian leader lectured him about the benefits of eating honey.  Al-Omary then said, “It was then I realized the problem we have in this region.  These two nations are run by two old men.  For one, the most important thing is the benefit of onions; for the other it is honey.  The problem is not just militants on either side, it is the leadership.  As you say in English, ‘You cannot teach old dogs new tricks’.” (p 188-189.)

This quote that I had read a year ago made me realize how much I had ignored youth in my studies of the Middle East.  After all, the youth don’t produce historical records that I could use in my research. During my research on security services in the Middle East, I hadn’t noticed a historic shift of how before they hunted down Communists and political Islamists to how they turned their attention to media-savvy “subversive youth.” It never dawned on me how Al-Qaida’s suicide bombers tend to be under 30.  The events in Iran after the June 2009 elections further demonstrated how youth can spontaneously mobilize for a cause. 11 February 2011 (11/2/11) the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down in some ways was the vindication of events that started in Iran.   Perhaps 11/2/11 would mark the date when leaders in this region begin listening to their youth.

In the Middle East there are few institutions to channel the youth.  During my travels to almost all the Middle Eastern countries (I still haven’t been to Algeria or Libya), I noticed two factors among the youth I hung out with.  Their lives were banal, or in other words they had little interest besides socializing or clubbing (at least the ones I’ve met). I could not think of one who was dedicated to a cause greater than life itself. Or they were frustrated. They couldn’t find a job or wanted to migrate to the US.  During one talk I gave to a bunch of students, I asked, “What will do you after graduation?”  One responded, “I will go to hell.”    

And it was this frustration that led to the immolation of a young youth in Tunisia that led to the unrest that brought down the system of Zein al-Abidin bin Ali.  It was the death of the young Khaled Said, and the posts of Wail Ghonim that brought down the octogenarian Hosni Mubarak. 

While following the events in Egypt I was dismayed to read about “A Council of Wise Men” that was called for to solve Egypt’s political turmoil. Wise Men seemed to be the problem.  I watched how Hosni Mubarak spoke in a patronizing tone to the youth and Omar Sulaiman telling the youth to go home. State owned Egyptian TV featured call-ins from older viewers who said that the youth in Tahrir Square were misguided.

At the same time I was struck when I read about a Revolutionary Youth Movement there.  They may be insignificant, but the declaration of their existence was fascinating. States have tried to control youth through various organization. There was the Futuwwa in Iraq where the Ba’ath Party tried to create a militant youth organization.  But this was the first time that a spontaneous youth organization had emerged since the Iranian Revolution. 

Already I have seen entrenched political parties and new ones that will contest the youth to harness their loyalty.  The youth as a political actor have definitely emerged on the scene.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is Assistant Professor of Contemporary History & Freedom of Speech at IE School of Communication, IE University.


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