World View: Young Arabs trying to make themselves heard

There are more young people in the Middle East than ever before, and many feel ignored

Tahrir Square in Ciaro on February 1, 2011. Most 18-29-year-olds in the region have disengaged from politics after the uprisings. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Tahrir Square in Ciaro on February 1, 2011. Most 18-29-year-olds in the region have disengaged from politics after the uprisings. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

 

Since the 1980s the Middle East has had a youth bulge caused by improved healthcare and a continuing high fertility rate. More than two-thirds of the population are under 30, about half under 20 and a third under 15. The number of young people has doubled, making this the region’s largest-ever generation of youth. But more than a quarter of under-25s are unemployed.

These demographic facts deeply affected the Arab uprisings of 2011 and their defeat and reversal since then by viciously repressive counter-revolutions, upgraded authoritarian governments or reforming monarchies. Youth and social movements have been marginalised by regimes that cannot provide employment, opportunities or hope.

Power is wielded by older generations and mainly by the privileged men who control the region’s states, armies, economies, political parties, mainstream media, and families. They now worry that excluding youth from power may radicalise them into fundamentalist and violent movements, such as Islamic State, or revive social unrest. Such fears feed into European responses, which reveal an anxiety about instability and mass migration that often overrides previous concerns with democratic values.

It therefore matters to know what young people in the region think and feel about its future and their prospects. The latest Arab youth survey, the eighth in a series by a Gulf-based public relations firm, conducted face-to-face interviews with 3,500 young people in 16 Gulf, Levant and north African states.

It finds they overwhelmingly reject Islamic State but believe unemployment and poor prospects help explain the group’s appeal. Half say these factors are more important than religion.

The young people surveyed prioritise stability over democracy and have less hope of change than before. Two-thirds of them want governments to do more to improve personal and women’s freedoms, although they were not asked about abuses of human rights. They get most of their news online and from television, not newspapers.

Debates

Another window on this younger generation comes from a remarkable series of debates across the Middle East and north Africa, titled Young Arab Voices. Universities, schools and communities have created national and regional debating networks attracting more than 100,000 young people from Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

Conducted in Arabic, English and French, co-managed by the Anna Lindh Foundation and the British Council, and funded by the British Foreign Office and European Commission, the debates have become a part of civic life. (The foundation, named after a Swedish minister assassinated in 2003, is devoted to intercultural dialogue in the EuroMed region and is funded by its 42 member-states, including Ireland, and the EU.

The values championed – critical thinking, listening, evidence-based research and argument, challenging stereotypes – are cherished the world over wherever public reasoning is practised.

Advocacy

The latest phase of the programme, called “Debate to Action”, shifts beyond personal debating skills to an advocacy of public improvement.

Having established a solid base in many universities, the debates are moving to schools and less privileged communities. They have an unexpected appeal to students and citizens impatient with rote learning and dogmatic public argument. The usual style of demonising opponents and silencing critics in politics and media stifles change and bolsters elites, they say.

At the close of a regional debating competition in Tunis last month, a declaration was issued condemning the use of violence for political purposes – as seen in the bombing in Brussels and acts of violence elsewhere in the Arab world and in Turkey – and calling for more dialogue and debate with the young people in Europe.

The debates go far beyond the security issues that preoccupy much European commentary on north Africa and the Middle East. The young Arab participants do not recognise themselves in stereotyped misperceptions of their societies as determined by fundamentalist Islam, as they too share concerns about these movements. They would not consider using such violence; their concerns are with their livelihoods and communities and with finding much greater opportunities to influence policymaking.

Research for Anna Lindh by the Chatham House think tank in London shows that, for the moment, most 18-29-year-olds in the region have disengaged from politics after the uprisings. The more educated ones feel little real improvement in their chances of being employed or listened to across the generational chasm.

Europeans should listen to these young voices from their southern neighbourhood. They deserve to be heard and responded to sympathetically and with solidarity.

pegillespie@gmail.com

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