Young, Arab and angry

 

IN A ROOM at the top of a soot-stained staircase in what used to be a court building facing Benghazi’s seafront, Hussein Kablan sits at a laptop, editing clips of the protests that rocked his hometown before tipping Libya’s eastern belt into a fully fledged revolt against the 42-year rule of Muammar Gadafy.

A sign outside, in Arabic and English, reads: “Welcome to the media centre of the February 17th Youth Revolution.” The atmosphere in the building brings to mind a Berlin squat. Walls left blackened after the building was torched are now spray-painted with slogans in red and green. Exposed wires droop from the ceiling. Caricatures mocking Gadafy hang everywhere. Young men in Che Guevara-style berets and black-and-white chequered scarves known as keffiyehs mill around. An artist dabs children’s faces with the colours of Libya’s pre-Gadafy national flag while, nearby, a headscarfed Libyan woman in her 20s speaks confidently in front of a TV camera.

Hussein, a 22-year-old architecture student dressed in a blue hoodie, jeans and cap, knew four out of the hundreds who died when Gadafy’s forces attacked unarmed protesters in Benghazi earlier this month.

“They were all around my age. This is 100 per cent a youth revolution. Gadafy made a mistake: he thought the youth were stupid, he thought we didn’t know anything or didn’t care. He underestimated us. Everyone had a fire inside. We let it out.”

In the next room Badr el-Din Ali, a slightly built dentistry student with a wispy goatee, sits drawing cartoons of Gadafy on huge posters. “This would have caused me a lot of trouble before the revolution,” he says, pointing at his work. “Life under Gadafy was suffocating. We felt like we were dying inside.”

Ask young Libyans what it was like to grow up under Gadafy and the answers together paint a picture of a disenfranchised and disenchanted generation chafing under the deadening impact of an all-controlling regime.

The brother of Abdul Kareem Buhidma, a final-year economics student shot dead during the protests, shrugs wearily when I ask him what Abdul Kareem had planned to do after graduation. “There are no opportunities here, no jobs,” he says. “After you finish your studies there is nothing else to do except wait for what God might bring.”

While the Gadafy regime, underpinned by his idiosyncratic ideology, is unique in the region, many of the grievances held by Libyan youth chime with those of their fellow young Arabs, known as shabab in Arabic, across the Middle East and north Africa.

They all rail against the repression, cronyism and stagnation that for decades smothered the societies in which they live. The protests that toppled President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunisia, and Hosni Mubarak, in Egypt, before rippling across to the Levant and the Arabian peninsula have been shaped by specific dynamics in each country, but all share a common thread: they are largely driven by those many had given up as a lost generation.

“Many had considered young Arabs of my generation a lost cause, only interested in being instantly gratified by their next entertainment or shopping fix while all around them the country decays,” says Mohammed al-Kabour, a Saudi national who lives in Ireland and was badly beaten when he joined protesters in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, earlier this month. “We have proved them wrong.”

They include those who have died in clashes on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain and now Libya since the Arab winter of discontent began with the self-immolation of a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit seller in December. Among them are young men like the one who flashed a victory sign as I walked past the Benghazi hospital bed where he lay, his body mangled by bullets.

“Older people are saying, ‘We never thought these Facebook kids, with their gelled hair and their jeans hanging down, could be so brave,’ ” says Mustafa Gheriani, the silver-haired, US-educated spokesman for the opposition in Benghazi. “I saw them standing bare-chested in front of tanks on the streets. They had no fear. It was like all of a sudden the youth we thought were sleeping woke up with a roar.”

THOSE WHO HAVEfound their voices on the streets of Arab cities and towns this year make up the second-highest percentage of young people in the world, second only to sub-Saharan Africa. About 60 per cent of the region’s population is under 30.

“The older, more subdued generation of Arabs is now dramatically outnumbered by an energetic, frustrated and often angry youth,” says Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al Quds al-Arabi, pointing out that the average age of the Arabs’ autocratic rulers is over 70. “Unlike the older generation, the regions’ youths long so much for freedom that they are prepared to risk their lives for it: they have nothing to lose and everything to gain from revolution.”

The greying, sclerotic regimes that have long kept a tight grip on countries from the Maghreb to the Gulf failed to heed warnings that the coming of age of those who make up this demographic bulge could prove either an economic blessing or a curse.

The result is that the world’s highest rates of youth unemployment are found in the Middle East and north Africa: one in five young people is unemployed, and in some places the percentage is much higher.

In Tunisia they are called hittistes, Franco-Arabic slang for those who lean against the wall. Across the region they are the disaffected, the unemployed or the underemployed: rising education levels mean huge numbers of university graduates are forced to take whatever job they can find just to survive.

Because of rampant corruption, very often only those with connections – wasta in Arabic – have any hope of securing work. When I lived in Jordan, people used to joke bitterly that the only vitamin needed in life is “vitamin W”: wasta.

“We have many jokes about wasta in Libya too,” says Ali Muftah, a 26-year-old economics student. “We say, ‘Even in death, you need wasta,’ because you have to bribe people to get the funeral papers. If we didn’t laugh we’d cry.”

If you’re a young Arab man without a job, your prospects for marriage – crucial in a society where adulthood equals being married – are extremely slender. “To get married you need a lot of money so you can get a house and start a life together,” says Omar, an unemployed graduate in his late 20s from Egypt. “Like most of my friends, I’m not sure when I will ever reach that point.”

So at ages when their parents were embarking on their working lives and marrying, millions of increasingly educated young Arabs are jobless and living at home, angry, frustrated and humiliated. They are politically emasculated because of the stifling regimes under which they live, economically excluded because they can’t find work, and socially isolated because they don’t have the means to get married.

In November, research by Gallup found that about 40 per cent of young Arabs outside the oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf said they would migrate permanently if they had the chance.

“The only power you could rely on is the young people, because they didn’t have a future,” according to Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and Egyptian opposition figure who had been urging the country’s youth to rebel against the Mubarak regime for the past year.

Everyone in the revolutionary headquarters in Benghazi has heard of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street vendor who, frustrated in his efforts to make a decent living, set himself alight outside a government building last December, triggering the rallies that eventually led to Ben Ali’s fall.

“Tunisia is full of Mohamed Bouazizis,” wrote the Moroccan novelist Laila Lalami. “As it turned out, the entire Arab world is full of Mohamed Bouazizis.” In Egypt his name was Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessman beaten to death by police last summer. A Facebook page highlighting Said’s killing, entitled “We are all Khaled Said”, drew about 500,000 supporters and prepared the ground for the protests that ultimately overthrew Mubarak. “This revolution was started by the young bloggers, and the whole of Egypt then responded,” says the Egyptian novelist and activist Alaa al-Aswany.

One of those behind the online campaigns that provided the spark for Egypt’s revolt was Wael Ghonim, a 30-year-old Egyptian who works for Google’s Middle Eastern arm. A tearful Ghonim, who was detained in the early days of the protests, gave an emotional interview to a private Egyptian TV channel on his release, insisting the demonstrators were motivated only by love of country and a desire to see a better Egypt. The interview proved a sensation and brought even more people out on the streets. Ghonim later declared the uprising “Revolution 2.0”. If you want to liberate a society, he told one journalist, just give people the internet.

The wave of protest roiling the region has tempted many to dub this a Facebook, Twitter or WikiLeaks revolution, the latter because of the anger generated by the release of US diplomatic cables detailing the excesses of regimes including those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The reality is more complex, but social media, and the internet more broadly, plays a huge role in the lives of young Arabs, as has the growth of satellite TV channels such as Al Jazeera. Some estimates put at more than 100 million the number of new-media users across the Arab world.

“Reading discussions [online] meant I picked up a lot of ideas I would not have been exposed to otherwise. It encourages a cross-pollination of opinions,” Haitham Yahya, a 22-year-old medical student and blogger from Khaled Said’s hometown, Alexandria, told me three years ago. “The growth of internet and satellite TV means that people in the Middle East are seeing how the world outside works – something that was not possible to such an extent before. Now there is a wide sea of information. It’s changing people’s ideas, making them more open. You could call it a change in the infrastructure of the mind.”

In every city and town across the Middle East and north Africa you will find smoky internet cafes packed at all times of the day and night with young Arabs using Facebook, instant messenger and online chatrooms to communicate with others in the region and farther afield.

In a country as repressive as Libya the internet is considered even more precious. “Political parties and groups are banned here. There is nowhere where we can openly exchange ideas. The only place where we can communicate with other people in the region and the rest of the world is online,” says Susan Hussein Hemy, a young mother who now helps put together a fledgling newspaper published by revolutionaries in Benghazi. “The internet helps us feel like we are part of something, something bigger. It is so important for us to know that we are not alone.”

The internet and satellite TV have helped fuel the pan-Arab feel of the mass protests of recent months, inspiring young Arabs to organise similar “Youm al Ghadab”, or Day of Rage, rallies in their respective countries. Both have also contributed to an overlapping of themes and slogans as activists swap ideas with their peers elsewhere. The chant first heard on the streets of Tunis – “The people want the regime to fall” – has been echoed by protesters from Yemen to Algeria. Across the region, demonstrators have co-opted a song written by the Tunisian rapper El Général. “Mr President, your people are dying,” it goes. “People are eating rubbish / Look at what is happening / Miseries everywhere, Mr President / I talk with no fear / Although I know I will get only trouble / I see injustice everywhere.”

VINCENT DURAC, a UCD academic specialising in the region, says the role of new media and new technologies is as easy to overestimate as it is to dismiss. “Would [the protests] have taken place in the absence of such technologies? Certainly not in the way they did . . . It is tempting to see a generation cleavage here which is partly a function of youth and partly of education. The capacity of young, educated populations to out-think their elders in their mastery of new technologies allowed for a mobalisation of discontent based on pre-existing grievences that has not been seen before.”

Read the signs, placards and flags held aloft at protests across the region and the themes are broadly the same: demonstrators want to reclaim their dignity and the right to determine their government; they demand accountability, transparency and rule of law; and an end to corruption and respect for human rights. “We want to be free to be ourselves,” as one Libyan put it this week.

The extraordinary events of the past month have also helped resurrect a sense of common Arab identity. In a region where religion or conflict with Israel often seemed the only means of galvanising people, a generation of young Arabs now feel solidarity with one another.

Born of the exhilaration that springs from the discovery of power they weren’t aware of, it has prompted a feeling that anything is possible. In a text sent the night Mubarak announced he was stepping down, an Egyptian friend quoted William Wordsworth on the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”

Last week I entered Libya from the Egyptian border with a group of young Egyptian doctors and medical students eager to help their Libyan counterparts, following Gadafy’s brutal attempt to snuff out protestors emboldened by what had been achieved in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt. Most were in their 20s and had taken part in the huge demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo early last month. They told me they had responded to a Facebook campaign calling for donations and volunteers.

“We are all in this together,” said one. Another was reading a paperback book already published about the protests that ousted Mubarak. The cover featured a montage of the Facebook logo alongside a photograph of a young woman carrying an Egyptian flag and a loudspeaker.

Soon after we passed over the border, to smiles and cheers from the Libyan guards who had defected to the opposition, graffiti began to appear on roadside walls. Much jeered or poked fun at Gadafy, but here and there were references to the youth who have claimed this revolution as their own. “We are the new generation,” said one. “And our time has come.”